New Zealand debate over gene-modified food heats up

A genetic engineering ban disrupts the new government's efforts at coalition building.

On most days, Stephen Rainbow likes to voice his support of genetically modified food to anyone who will listen.

"It's a bit of an obsession for me," he admits, smiling.

Mr. Rainbow is not alone: Everyone in this self-styled "environmental superpower" seems to be consumed by the topic.

The issue dominated recent national elections after the ransacking of a biotechnologist's experiment involving more than 1,300 plants. Now, the country's once-obscure Green Party is leading a campaign to extend a national moratorium on the commercial use of genetically modified food, scheduled to expire in October. Meanwhile, newly reelected Prime Minister Helen Clark – who, like most political leaders here, opposes the ban – struggles to cement a coalition.

While debates over the risks and benefits of genetic engineering still rage across much of Europe, the potential impact is especially great in New Zealand. Here agriculture accounts for more than 50 percent of exports. Moreover, because New Zealand provides one-third of the world's dairy exports and more than half of the world's lamb exports, how this country ultimately decides the issue could have affects well beyond its borders.

Also intensifying the debate is a strong tradition of environmental awareness. This South Pacific capital, for example, first attracted worldwide attention nearly 20 years ago after banning US warships because of environmental risks posed by their nuclear arms and propulsion.

Rainbow is, as he says, in an unusual position to appreciate the controversy.

He was the first student in this country to complete a doctoral thesis on New Zealand's green politics. He was also the first political aspirant to win public office – as a three-term city councilor – running on an explicitly Green ticket. And his work was instrumental in establishing the Greens as a political force after the party was formed in 1992.

However in recent years, his "maturing" views have led him away from his political bedfellows, even as environmental issues have surged back into the national consciousness.

These days, Rainbow says, he "despises" the Greens for their unbending opposition to genetic engineering. He characterizes the collective mind-set of the party and its well-wishers as "antiscience ... anti-American, antibusiness, anti-first world" and altogether against human progress in any form.

For the Greens, however, and the party's thousands of supporters in this island nation of 3.9 million, not enough is known about the potential effects of genetic engineering to justify the government opposition to a moratorium on any commercial use of genetically engineered crops.

"We do not know the long-term impacts," says Annette Cotter, a Greenpeace activist, echoing a widely shared criticism. If and when genetically modified crops enter the New Zealand food chain, "society at large and the environment will take the risk," she warns.

The risks, opponents say, include the ever-present chance of new technologies mutating into potentially deadly forms in nature.

They cite cases such as one in the United States involving StarLink, a genetically modified corn. StarLink inadvertently contained a new protein which caused severe allergic reactions among some users and had to be recalled from the market.

But most farmers, who would like to see New Zealand become more science-friendly, say the benefits, such as potentially improved nutritional value of some foods, outweigh the risks.

Francis Wevers, the director of Life Sciences Network, a pro-genetic engineering lobby group, routinely presses into service the case of Ingo Potrykus, a European scientist, who inserted a gene from a daffodil into rice, giving the food a vitamin A component which was a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people in the underdeveloped world who suffer a deficiency of the vitamin.

Declaring it a "nonnegotiable" political stance, the Green Party waged its recent electoral campaign by vowing to use its parliamentary numbers to bring down any government that backed field trials of any genetically modified crops, such as potatoes, a favorite among scientists currently doing their genetic engineering work behind closed laboratory doors.

The Greens would ordinarily have been the obvious coalition partner for Ms. Clark's ruling Labor Party. Since the general election July 27, it seems all but certain the Green Party will not be able to make good on its threat, although its leaders say they will continue trying to extend the moratorium.

For now, the political tide seems to be in one direction. Clark, herself the daughter of a farmer, has promised that creating and sustaining a research- friendly environment will continue to be a priority for as long as she remains premier.

"We cannot afford to turn our back on science," she says, adding that if her countrymen are to continue enjoying 21st-century standards of living, "then we cannot afford to be left behind as science makes new discoveries."

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