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Dr Peter Wills analyzes relevant new evidence that has appeared since the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (RCGM) delivered its report. Dr Wills reports that the Commission's report was deficient in its expectation of what further research was likely to uncover or how events would unfold. He found that there is growing recognition that some of the general problems that were raised then, in criticism of the use of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs), especially as crops and in food, are more serious than initial enthusiasm for the technology indicated. Recent international scientific reports have renewed skepticism concerning assessments of the safety of genetically engineered (GE) food and of the effects of GE crops on agricultural and natural ecosystems.

Recent experience with seed imported from North America to New Zealand has demonstrated the wide extent of GE contamination in grain and seed stocks in that region. Contamination of non-GE crops due to outcrossing from GE crops can no longer be regarded as a potential problem that ought to be mitigated. Whenever GE crops are grown or harvested near non-GE crops, contamination seems inevitable. There is growing recognition that seeds can be carried long distances on farm machinery, and by other means, to cross with relatives, making the containment of transgenes virtually impossible.

Dr Wills says the RCGM served the interests of GE industries by refusing to endorse a GE-free policy and recommended that the precautionary threshold for releasing GEOs into the open environment in New Zealand be lowered.

Establishing the category of Conditional Release will create new opportunities for GE-based agriculture while effectively ensuring that the opportunity of maintaining the current GE-free status of enterprise will be lost. Conditional Release will also require the public to accept involuntarily the possibility of an increasing level of GE material in some foods, even when they are certified organic or GE-free. The final effect of new legislation will be to establish a more permissive regime for the growing of transgenic species in the open environment.

While biotechnology has made important advances adding much of value to our scientific heritage, with only three percent of FRST funding for biological science going to projects which will eventually lead to the release of GEOs, keeping genetic engineering technology in the laboratory will have minimal impact on NZ research projects and the retention of scientific manpower and capacity.

Continuation of the moratorium on applications for the release of GEOs into the New Zealand environment is probably the only way to preserve our opportunity of remaining virtually free of contamination and other problems associated with GE crops.

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