Daisy’s (missing) Tale
Ten years ago, genetic engineering was a hot topic in NZ. Since then the subject has disappeared from the headlines, but it hasn't gone away.
In 2001 and 2003, tens of thousands marched against GE, activists around the country were getting out their spades in preparation to liberate field trials. Companies were pressured to remove GE ingredients from their products. No one wanted to touch the technology. Since then, the subject has pretty much dropped off the radar for most people.
That doesn't mean the issue has gone away, rather GE has been introduced by stealth. As more and more fields are contaminated by GE crops, the technology creeps into more and more food products, as happened with the soy component of infant formula in Australia recently.
And still no study on the long term health effects of eating GE food has been made, but alarming reports keep popping up. In September, a French study found that rats fed on Monsanto's NK603 "Roundup-ready" had developed cancer. The study was swiftly denounced as being flawed by two scientists from from Auckland University – neither of them geneticists.
While the health risks are disputed, the devastating effects the technology has on producers are well documented. In India, every 30 minutes a farmer commits suicide – most of them because of GE crop failures. It is estimated that a quarter of a million Indian farmers have killed themselves in the last 16 years, thanks to the likes of Monsanto.
Back on the agenda
Recently, there has been another push by the industry to bring GE back on the agenda. Their problem is that the technology is as unpopular as it ever was. In September this year, they organised a biotechnology conference in Rotorua, sponsored by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. All the big-wigs of GE were there: speakers from the industry, including Monsanto’s Vice-President for Biotechnology, a Swiss investment entrepreneur, someone from the US State Department, along with several academics from around the world got together under the motto "Adapting to a Changing World" – meaning, of course, that it is us who need to adapt to the world they plan to change.
Of course NZ's foremost GE enthusiast William Rolleston, formerly of the lobby group Life Sciences Network and now vice-president of Federated Farmers, was there as well.
Rolleston called for a "rational and informed debate about all tools and options" – as if we haven't already had a Royal Commission on the subject back in 2001. The commission received more then 10,000 submissions, 92% of them opposed to any release of GE material into the environment.
The whole conference seems to have wound back the clock by ten years. Arguments that have long been debunked were recycled, only this time with more catchy phrases.
Rolleston talked about a 'food race' due to an increase in the world's population, and that using GE to win the race will be "as important as anything we have done in our history as a species". Now, as then, he ignored that fact that the problem is not the production of food but its uneven distribution.
John Bedbrook from chemical giant DuPont talked about "Golden Rice", the miracle food from 12 years ago which was supposed to save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives by containing additional vitamin A. He didn't mention that it has never been made available for human consumption.
Also recycled was the old argument that by not growing GE crops on a large scale, NZ will be left behind – ignoring the fact that the reason why there are no commercial GE releases in NZ is because none have been applied for, not because NZ legislation wouldn't allow them.
And anyway, the whole issue is one of freedom: Rolleston argues that "farmers should have the right to decide if they want to use genetically modified technology", irrespective of what that means for the rights of their neighbours who might want to farm organically. Graeme Peters, CEO of the biotech industry association Agcarm, tops that by saying that New Zealand was subject to "out-of-date views by a vocal minority" and should remove the "shackles" around GE.
In the end, Jack Bobo – nomen est omen – from the US State Department made a rather cryptic statement, which could be seen to support the case of being GE-free, although it certainly wasn't meant that way. "New Zealand has a choice - will it continue to meet its own needs and the needs of others, or will it slowly become a net importer of foods?"
Luddites doing it again
Rolleston's call for a "rational debate" was heeded by newspaper editors who knew what was expected of them. The Waikato Times headlined its editorial "GE scientists need chance" regurgitating uncritically the GE industry's claim that the technology would result in "agrichemicals [being] phased out over the next 20 years". The fact that the vast majority of commercial GE crops are of the "Roundup-ready" variety, requiring even more chemicals than conventional crops, is conveniently not mentioned. Instead those who dared to expose the propaganda in an alternative conference (but who were not allowed to approach anyone with their message) are labelled "Luddites" who wear the "shameful badge of intolerance and dogmatism". Rational debate at its best.
In a strange coincidence, the editorial of the Marlborough Express with the headline "Let them look for options" had the identical content as the Waikato Times, word by word. A case of shameless plagiarism or one of orders from higher up in the Fairfax hierarchy?
A common technique to promote GE is to sell basic research findings as a 'breakthrough development' to the public. This happened when AgResearch in Hamilton announced that they created a transgenic cow named Daisy that produced milk with a reduced amount of the protein beta-lactoglobulin (BLG). BLG is believed to be one of the causes of infant allergies that affects approximately 3% of newborns in NZ.
Again, the Waikato Times was at the forefront of journalistic excellence. "Allergy free milk on the way" was the headline. Whether the milk is actually allergen-free still needs to be tested, but it will certainly never be allergy-free – but who cares about details when one is dealing with "a world-first breakthrough". But, readers are warned, the dream may not come true: "Before the milk could be tasted by humans, tested in clinical trials on humans or produced commercially, New Zealand’s genetic modification policies would need to change". The Luddites again. Or is the circumstance that so far one cup full of milk has been recovered from a cow that had to be induced by hormones to lactate and may or may not be able to reproduce also possibly a problem that would need to be solved before commercial production could begin?
One thing that is not mentioned is that this has nothing to do with lactose intolerance which is what most people would associate with the term "milk allergy". Also, goat milk has always existed as an alternative for babies with BLG allergy. It is not as if this new invention would make a huge difference to anyone's life.
One of the recommendations of the Royal Commission back in 2001 was not to use food-producing animals for genetic experiments – yet this is precisely what AgResearch do.
Daisy is the survivor of a $50 million experiment by the government funded Crown Research Institute AgResearch in Hamilton that has been going on since 2009. Most of Daisy's relatives, who were given less fanciful names, had developed cancer and were therefore "identified as culls". Daisy's aunt, cow 81, also "had a hydrops pregnancy and was aborted".
In another field trial currently carried out by AgResearch, transgenic goats are being developed to produce the antibody Erbitux in their milk. During this trial, only 15% of the animals survived.
That makes Daisy look lucky – the only thing she seems to be missing is a tail. AgResearch claim this has nothing to do with Daisy's modified genes.
The GE debate seems to have come full circle. Back in 2002, Mothers Against GE (MAdGE) had a poster of a woman with four breasts on a milking machine. Allanah Currie, one of the designers of that poster said at the time: "If they want to make designer milk, why not genetically engineer women for milk?" Since that may seem a step too far, the GE industry has approached the issue from the opposite side: cows are now producing human milk.
And even here in Aotearoa, protest actions haven't stopped entirely. A field trial of genetically engineered trees in Rotorua has been chopped down twice (in 2007 and 2012).
In California, a proposed labelling regime, called "Proposition 37" has just been defeated. There are some (including the FBI) who believe that the US$45 million spent by Monsanto, Nestle and Pepsi on their propaganda campaign may have something to do with the result.
While the labelling regime in California doesn't directly affect us here in Aotearoa, the defeat of Proposition 37 does. When negotiations about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) take place in December in Auckland, the US negotiators will likely push to have our labelling regime (which requires GE content over 1% to be declared) scrapped. That would have been harder for them to do, had California implemented a similar regime.
This may explain why the Ministry for the Environment is currently undertaking a study to show how much money the absence of GE crops have cost the country. The results are expected before Christmas.