The High Court has quashed a decision by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) that would have allowed developers of genetically modified crops to bypass New Zealand’s GM laws.

The Court found the EPA misinterpreted the law when it decided that GMOs from two new breeding techniques could go into New Zealand fields without any formal consultation or assessment of the impacts.  The EPA was also criticised for failing to act cautiously in the face of uncertainty.

This was not a routine approval for a minor field trial.  This was the EPA putting new methods for making GMOs beyond the law without having properly understood that law or properly investigating the consequences.

The decision placed New Zealand at risk of losing overnight its status as a GM Free food producer without a public process to assess what would be lost.

The Council believes such failures raise serious questions about the EPA’s reliability as a guardian of the environment.

The case arose from an EPA decision last April that two new techniques for plant breeding – Zinc Finger Nuclease (ZFN-1) and Transcription Activator-Like Effectors (TALEs) – did not produce GMOs under New Zealand law.

Certain traditional plant breeding techniques are excluded from the GM laws and the EPA decision effectively added to the exemption list.  The Sustainability Council appealed that decision and its barristers, Dr Matthew Palmer and Felix Geiringer, told the Court that only the Cabinet or Parliament can decide which techniques are exempt.  The Council also stated that the EPA had misinterpreted the law and failed to exercise proper caution – points that the Court judgment has supported.

The ruling is good news for food exporters supplying high value markets such as Europe that will generally not tolerate any detectable level of GM content.  The EU has yet to set regulations specifically for ZFN-1 and other new techniques.  If ZFN-1 crops were grown in New Zealand and contaminated exports, that production could wind up being rejected if Europe’s GM laws end up covering the new techniques.

The records of the EPA’s decision-making committee make no mention of these market factors.  Yet economic effects are part of the overall outcomes the EPA is responsible for considering and this is one reason it should definitely have applied caution in its decision-making.

The EPA thoroughly misjudged the decision and needs to explain how that happened and how it plans to fix the problems.


A further background on the key points of the case is here.

Listen to the coverage on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report here (mp3 podcast).