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GE brassica trial

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The decision to field trial brassicas genetically engineered with the Bt toxin is a bitter blow for organic farmers and hundreds of other submitters, including scientists and agricultural experts, who opposed the application by Crop & Food Research, says OANZ.

In the latest OANZ newsletter executive director Ken Shirley said farmers and growers would not be satisfied by the containment requirements that have been placed on Crop & Food to prevent spread of GE material. 

The Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) has approved Crop and Food"s application to field test brassicas such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and forage kale genetically engineered with the toxin which is derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis(Bt). 

Organic Brand threatened
He said any release of genetically modified products not only threatens the 'certified organic' brand, but also jeopardises New Zealand's 'clean, green' image.

According to the newsletter, the OANZ submission opposing Crop & Food's application highlighted the researchers' own statement that infestation of diamondback moth and cabbage white butterfly - the conditions which supposedly made a field trial necessary - could be artificially manufactured.

There is simply no good reason to put our organic future at risk, Mr Shirley said.

The ERMA decision has come in the same week that BioGro received a record number of applications for organic certification said OANZ.

Soil & Health spokesperson Steffan Browning said the decision is in conflict with New Zealand’s new era of sustainability  and lacks economic sense.

GE bias
ERMA was biased toward genetic engineering, regardless of the community’s opposition he said.

The ERMA committee stated that GM brassicas will be prevented from entering the human food chain and a further application to the authority for a release approval would be needed before effects on food safety and food choice would arise.

'Why grow a crop that is potentially toxic to humans and animals for ten years without first establishing if it is even potentially edible?" said Mr Browning.

GE Bt brassicas were ultimately intended for commercial release. To not study whether GE brassica's were safe to eat first made the trial a serious potential waste of tax payers money, Mr Browning said.

Bt cotton killing animals in India
Animals were sick and dying in India from eating cotton also modified with Bt toxins and cotton workers have health issues. Feed studies also show health risks from other Bt engineered crops," he said.

Mr Browning said the ERMA decision appeared to be predicated heavily on upskilling scientists and increasing experience in working with gene technology in the field.

Marginal public benefit is expected, with benefits primarily being to the applicant and the staff involved in the field test.

Overseas markets
New Zealand’s markets were already concerned with food miles, and would not like the signals New Zealand was intending commercial production of GE vegetables sometime, he said.

He said GE testing sent a message in conflict with Prime Minister Helen Clark’s desire for New Zealand to be the world"s first truly sustainable country and National leader John Key's assertion that the country's clean green environment is vital to the Kiwi way of life and the image New Zealand sells to the world.

Further action?
Soil & Health will be discussing with other groups, potential further action against the field trial, he said.

GE-Free NZ is seeking legal advice on a possible High Court challenge to ERMA's decision.

"ERMA has yet again let down the public and chosen to approve an experiment without any consideration of the long term hazardous effects on the environment, human or animal health, community wellbeing, or New Zealand's brand reputation," said Claire Bleakley, speaking for GE Free NZ.

"We will be looking very carefully at the decision to see if there is cause for a High Court action."

There may also be need for fundamental legislative changes to the HSNO Act to prevent ERMA making similar decisions in the future by ignoring alternative solutions to pest-control, lessons from overseas, and "real-world" future implications, she said.

The Green party also said that GE field testing risks sending good money after bad, with no chance that the New Zealand public will ever agree to eat this plant or have it grown commercially here.

ERMA received 941 submissions of objection (out of 959 submissions), many favouring organics.

Pollen travels large distances
"Brassica is a particularly problematic crop. Brassica pollen travels large distances, the seeds are small and brassicas cross easily, with hundreds of variants in existence," said co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons.

Rather than reducing the need for pesticides, the use of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in genetically engineered crops is likely to produce long-term resistance in insects, which means more toxic sprays will be needed to control pests Ms Fitzsimons said.

"We must be cautious about promises of containment and monitoring, and that the trial will not be allowed to flower."

Inability to contain GE 
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry raised serious concerns over the last brassica field trials. They highlighted failures to meet several conditions surrounding monitoring, non-cultivation of trial sites and buffer zones. Other evidence showed canola plants were allowed to flower to enable seed production, and at the end of the field tests, the plant material was disposed of by ploughing into the ground. These seeds can lay dormant in soil for up to 15 years.

Risks include the transfer of the changed genes to wild plants. For example, plants engineered to be resistant to pesticides may transfer their resistance to weeds. It has already been proven this can happen, and that new resistant weeds can survive in the wild, she said.

"Almost all GE plants use antibiotic resistant genes - another area of grave concern in agriculture and wider society."

Even the project leader admitted there can be no guarantees of containing the trial to the site - the trials would be tantamount to a publicly funded hand out for scientific folly, Ms Fitzsimons said.

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