Cabinet papers released under the Official Information Act show New Zealand seeks the option to authorise field trials for GM plants that produce sterile seeds. At present, an international understanding restrains field trialling techniques to make plants sterile.

This understanding arose in 2000 though a decision of the parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). They unanimously recommended to member governments, including New Zealand, that techniques involving genetically engineering sterility into plants should not be field trialed “until appropriate scientific data can justify such testing”. These techniques are collectively known as Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).

New Zealand is one of a small group of countries that is this week set to advance the weakest interpretation of the approach set out by the CBD when the matter is considered further at the 8th Conference of the Parties now taking place in Curitiba, Brazil. On the face of the existing text, it is a recommendation to all Parties. To the extent clarification is sought as to what constitutes “appropriate scientific data” and when this has been assembled, such issues would need to come back to the CBD Parties as a whole. However New Zealand and Canada are among those taking the interpretation that individual parties have the authority to themselves determine at what point scientific understanding is sufficient to assess field trial proposals.

New Zealand views the existing resolution as simply a voluntary guideline and is pushing for a “clarification” to be adopted. The Cabinet documents argue that “controlled field trials will be required” to assess GURTs. However, there is no evidence of a New Zealand work programme that would properly inform assessment of a field trial proposal.

If each nation set its own standards, this would incentivise GURTs developers to undertake early field experimentation in countries with the lowest regulatory requirements. Moreover, just as other altered genetic material has shown itself capable of spreading beyond the area it is released into, and beyond the plant into which it was first inserted, once commercialised there is the prospect of unintended transfer of risk to other countries. So holding back field trialling until parties to the CBD are satisfied there is a good basis to assess the risks is prudent biosecurity.

New Zealand should not support measures that favour individual countries setting their own standards to evaluate GURTs field trial proposals. Instead, it should work with the international community to identify the research required before field trial proposals can be adequately assessed.


Read the Sustainability Council briefing on NZ Position on GM Sterile Seeds.

The cabinet papers are available here.