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Openly Regulate GMOs

New Zealand is providing an example of effective regulation.
February 1, 2005

New Zealand has recently become one of the world’s most inviting places to create, exploit, and market genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It did so by enacting responsible and effective regulations. Hooray for the New Zealand government.

The benefits of GMOs are only beginning to be felt, in the form of higher crop yields and a handful of experimental protein-­based pharmaceuticals; their long-term impact could be much more significant. But public opposition to the notions of tinkering with the genomes of living things, releasing transgenic creatures into the environment, and using GMO products in food is very real. In Europe, the outcry over genetically modified crops from Monsanto, Aventis, and other companies culminated in outright bans on some genetically modified foods. In the United States, public fears over what some have called “Frankenfoods” have led some companies to pull products from the market and rein in R&D. Indeed, why invent products like new variations of pest-resistant potatoes or corn when huge multinational companies such as McDonald’s and Frito-Lay won’t dare to buy them?

But as we learn from the case study in, “New Zealand: Green Haven for Biotech?”, the level-headed folk of New Zealand may have found a way around such impasses. There is nothing magical about their solution. It relies on regulations laboriously devised to address the concerns of environmentalists, scientists, and businesspeople alike. The regulations’ goal, in the words of Marion Hobbs, New Zealand’s environmental minister, is to “provide a practical framework for proceeding with caution in the management of new organisms (including GMOs) while preserving opportunities.” In a country often noted for its strong environmental sensibilities, it seems compromise has won out.

First and foremost, the regulations, enacted in 2003, ensure public involvement in the approval and monitoring of field releases of GMOs. They also demand spot checks of active projects and regular publication of status reports on the Web. At the same time, the regulations require that biotech companies respect the customs of indigenous Maori tribes, who have both particularly strong beliefs about the sanctity of the natural world and growing political power in the country. One result of the new laws is that the regulations help to keep GMO research on track even in the face of preëmptive legal attacks over potential harms, attacks that have slowed field tests and drained biotech companies’ coffers in other countries. These provisions are attracting the attention of biotech manufacturers and investors, who are pleased to have discovered an environment with clear – and politically legitimate – research guidelines.

Every country must weigh the medical, agricultural, and economic opportunities presented by genetically modified organisms against the potential risks. Governments should go out of their way to regulate GMOs in a way that is fully transparent and open to public comment. But that’s only half of the formula: companies and investors will be more willing to take financial risks on biotechnology products if a government “seal of approval” carries real weight. If businesses and regulators want to stimulate GMO research in their own countries, they should keep an eye on the antipodes.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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