UPDATE: The Ministry for the Environment’s briefing to the incoming Government contained the following advice to its new minister: “Applications for genetic modification of roses and onions may be received by ERMA and use of your call-in power would need to be considered”. This raised a series of questions as the minister can only use the call-in powers if the effects of the activity are “significant” – those associated with a GMO release rather than simply the field trials carried out to date. The Sustainability Council’s website questioned whether applications for the release of GM roses and GM onions could be a serious prospect given the minimal commercial benefit either could provide (se further below). NZPA followed up on this reference and produced the following account.
Minister alerted to possible need to ‘call in’ GE blue rose
WEDNESDAY, 30 NOVEMBER 2005
By KENT ATKINSON
Environment Minister David Benson-Pope may have to intervene in applications for approval of a genetically engineered blue rose, or for GE onions, ministry briefing papers say.
“Applications for genetic modification of roses and onions may be received by Erma (Environmental Risk Management Authority) and use of your call-in power would need to be considered,” the new minister has been advised by ministry officials.
The Environment Minister has special powers to “call-in” genetic engineering applications with potential “significant” effects and make the decision himself, rather than leaving it up to Erma.
Florigene, a Japanese-owned gene engineering company, has applied to grow GE blue roses in field trials in Australia.
Australia’s genetic technology regulator is looking at whether a blue rose could be inadvertently released into the environment and allow gene transfer, resulting in it taking over natural roses.
The GE roses and onions were highlighted yesterday on the Sustainability Council website, which questioned why either would be potential candidates for the first GE crop release in New Zealand.
Their fit with any national strategy would be so poor, it was difficult to imagine them being put forward for release, even with controls, the council said.
The Royal Commission on genetic engineering recommended that before the release of the nation’s first GE crop, the Environment Minister should use his powers to make a ministerial decision, so that he could assess likely economic and environmental impacts.
The Sustainability Council said it was concerned that the ministry’s advice meant that some form of GE release was being contemplated.
But a spokeswoman for Erma said yesterday that no applications had been received for release of genetically engineered onions.
She suggested that the wording in the minister’s briefing had been “unfortunate” and “ambiguous”.
“What they’re trying to brief the minister on is that the potential for some applications of that kind – for example, roses or onions – that they may have to think about their ministerial call-in power,” she said.
“As far as I know these are examples of the types of applications that we have had, or nearly had, which would possibly require them to consider their call-in power.”
She understood the reference to roses stemmed from plans by the Ellerslie Garden Show to import GE blue roses earlier this month. The garden show organisers did not go ahead with an application for their show, which finished on November 20.
At the same time, in Australia, Florigene applied to have another GE flower, a blue carnation, placed on a register that would remove the need for dealings in the flower on that side of the Tasman to be licensed and monitored.
The carnation was released in 1995, and 4.25 million them have so far been sold as cut flowers to florists.
Crop and Food Research – which has the only New Zealand scientists with experience in genetically engineering onions – said the reference to GE onions was unlikely to be to its crops, because they were still at the field trial stage.
Erma two years ago approved field trials of onions engineered for tolerance to herbicide, partly to evaluate their environmental impact.
The research, part-funded by the California-based international seed company Seminis Vegetable Seeds, was said to offer the prospect of cutting by 70 per cent the herbicide used by onion growers.
The trial, at a site near Lincoln, was approved for up to 10 years, with controls such as destruction of onions not kept in containment, and removal of all onions before they flowered, to stop the release of pollen.
The application by Dr Colin Eady, who is leading Crop and Food’s research on the onions, attracted huge public attention at the end of the Government moratorium on GE trials and releases, and attracted a record 1900 submissions.
A FIRST GMO RELEASE OF KITE FLYING?
29 November 2005
The Minister for the Environment has been told by officials to expect an application to come before ERMA that may seek to be New Zealand’s first deliberate GMO release.
But just how serious is this proposal that would challenge New Zealand’s GMO status?
While the Ministry for the Environment’s advice to its minister suggests at least one developer is giving more than passing thought to such an application, both its business case and its fit with any national strategy are so poor, it is difficult to imagine that this is GM Inc’s best shot.
Whether a serious application is soon to emerge, or whether this is more a kite flying exercise to test public and ministerial reaction remains to be seen.
What MfE told its incoming minister is simply the following: “Applications for genetic modification of roses and onions may be received by ERMA and use of your call-in power would need to be considered”.
The GM rose reference turns out to be an expired signal of interest from the Ellerslie Flower Show organisers, so this can be discounted. However a number of questions remain to be answered in respect of any GM onion call-in.
The term “call-in” refers to the ability for the minister to take over a decision from ERMA and himself determine an application. Under law, the effects of the activity need to be “significant” before a call-in can be made (HSNO s 68). No previous GMO decision has been called-in.
The ministry’s note therefore means it is almost certain that some form of release of a GMO is being contemplated.
Applications for this can be made under ERMA’s “conditional release” category which provides for activities that can range from experimental work with slightly fewer confinement conditions than a field trial, through to a full blown release for commercial production.
ERMA does not discuss applications before they are lodged but if call-in powers “would need to be considered” by the Minister, this would strongly suggest that at least one of the proposals is for a form of deliberate release into the environment.
A deliberate release would be quite different from past activities that have involved GMOs in New Zealand.
Outdoor activities up to this point have all been for research and those carried out under ERMA’s auspices have essentially been field trials. For these, ERMA is required to design conditions that are intended to keep altered genetic material from spreading beyond the test site and it requires that GM reproductive material on the land be destroyed at the end of the research.
The other significant way in which GMOs have entered the environment is through contaminated corn seed imports. Here the lack of intent is significant along with the fact that, post Corngate, MAF has been scrupulous in the cleanup of an average of one incident a year in which very low concentrations of GM material has been detected.
Thus kiwi exporters servicing premium markets that require GM Free food have been able to assure buyers that there have been no intentional releases of GM material in New Zealand and any GMOs that have been detected have been subject to rigorous cleanup efforts. This has appeased overseas buyers who have picked up news on the wires and have required clarification from exporters of New Zealand’s GM Free status.
Any intentional release would automatically invalidate that form of customer assurance. Even if the release were limited geographically and intended only for research, the opportunities for the release to be reported in major newspapers in much simpler and more dramatic terms are enormous and have to be expected as a matter of course.
Given the very strong consumer resistance to GM foods in premium markets, and wholesale purchaser rejection of any level of trace GM contamination in those markets, deliberate release of a food GMO will impact negatively on Brand New Zealand and its clean green image. The degree of damage will depend in the first instance on the fact of the type of release undertaken (eg whether it is for research or commercial production), and then secondly on what markets understand to have occurred (irrespective of the facts) and how this is perceived.
HSNO requires that in order for ERMA to approve a release, the benefits to New Zealand must outweigh the costs. What stands out when considering the prospect of the release of GM onions is that it would not require very much economic damage for any such application to be declined as the potential gains appear so small.
A Crop and Food Institute application for a GM onion field trial in late 2003 only just scraped over the line. ERMA stated in its decision approving the trial (p 28) that:
“It is not clear to the Committee that genetic modification for herbicide tolerance is a priority for research funds among all potential areas of onion related research and therefore, pursuing this strand of research does represent an opportunity cost in terms of New Zealand agricultural and horticultural research priorities. The uncertainty about the long term environmental benefits of herbicide-tolerance technology invites the conclusion that this is not soundly based use of research funding. This decision under the HSNO Act should thus not be seen as an endorsement of the decision to fund this research.”
While a new application may be focused beyond herbicide resistance, the market realities for any form of GM onion remain stark. Europe is by far the largest market for this predominantly export crop, there are just half a dozen major buyers for the produce there, and none of them will touch GM onions. One of the wholesale buyers was reportedly initially quite concerned even by the very limited field trial application two years ago.
European Commission surveys indicate that the extent of consumer resistance to GM foods in Europe is such that not even direct consumer benefits (were they available) would change current opinion. And unlike the bulk of GM food produced globally which is destined for animal consumption, onions are grown for human consumption.
So the business case for any deliberate release of GM onions, and hence the benefits available to New Zealand, seems very weak while such a release would present real concerns for conventional onion growers in particular and food exporters in general.
So why would any company, much less an overseas one, choose New Zealand as the first place to try a form of release that would trigger New Zealand’s first use of the conditional release provisions for a GMO? Regardless of the negative publicity this would be likely to draw, it is an untried category and the developer could expect to have a more predicable run through the Australian regulator that has already approved a number of GM flowers. Australia also offers by far the bigger market in this part of the world. Further, ERMA often relies on assessments by other regulators for information to assess an application and a proposal for a first release globally could be expected to be treated with greater caution by ERMA, especially when it has not previously approved a GMO release. The report of a potential GM rose application is therefore an enigma commercially.
Should this prospects ultimately come before ERMA, it will involve the first real consideration of impacts beyond a test site and that will be a considerable new test for both applicants and the HSNO process.