Nobel laureates criticise Greenpeace's GM stance

11:45 am on 2 July 2016

An open letter, signed by more than 100 Nobel laureates attacking Greenpeace for its opposition to genetically modified crops, has triggered debate among local scientists about New Zealand's regulatory regime.

Female nutritionist using microscope in the laboratory.

An open letter from 100 Nobel laureates attacking Greenpeace's anti-GM stance has kicked off debate in New Zealand. Photo: AFP

Peter Dearden, director of Genetics Otago at the University of Otago, said the signatories included some of the "superstars" of biological research of the last few decades.

Their support showed the level of frustration within the scientific fraternity at seeing their discoveries stymied by irrational prejudice, Professor Dearden said.

"We spend a lot of time developing technologies that could help with pest control or improve productivity from New Zealand pastures, but we can't implement half of them because many involve genetic modification at some step of the process.

"So we're struggling with a lot of issues with one arm tied behind our back."

Professor Dearden said he was not arguing for no regulation, but for more evidence-based regulation.

"At the moment, applications are almost invariably turned down.

"It's not enough to say we disagree with the technology, but we need to engage with the evidence."

Associate Professor Peter Dearden, director of Genetics Otago, who dreamed up and has led the project, in front of the lab at Kaikorai Primary School.

Associate Professor Peter Dearden. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Professor Barry Scott from Massey University's Institute of Fundamental Sciences said there was good scientific evidence that GM crops did not pose any more risk than traditional plant breeding, as the recent US National Academies report on genetic modification showed.

"Particularly with climate change, increasingly we are going to need new crops for particular environments, and I think we just need to keep our options open."

However, Canterbury University genetics professor Jack Heinemann said New Zealand's regulatory regime was robust.

The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act was "in line" with international guidelines, he said.

"We do need to change the dialogue from absolutes about safety and harm, to a far more focused case-by-case risk assessment that determines whether there are net benefits to be gained from these different products."

Professor Heinemann, who has carried out research funded by Greenpeace through Canterbury, said blaming the environmental organisation for blocking the development of Golden Rice appeared to be at odds with the product developer's own admission that it did not yet have a commercially viable product.

Golden Rice is a type of rice genetically engineered to be consumed in areas with low levels of naturally occurring vitamin. Vitamin A deficiency kill hundreds of thousands of children worldwide every year.

"The implication of this letter is that if you regulate GM crops, this somehow makes it impossible for them to develop commercially.

"But there's lots of things we regulate - we regulate automobiles, broadcasters - and we have these things commercially available.

"So it seems to me that regulation is not an impenetrable barrier to developing commercial products that people want."

Professor Heinemann said while the limited number of GM crops in common use - canola, maize, cotton and soya bean - did not appear to have unleashed any adverse effects at large, the National Academy of Science report made it clear this did not mean one could assume that all future GM products would be safe.

Knowledge about the potential impact of GM micro-organisms or animals was still very limited, he said.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace has also hit back at the accusations against it.

Greenpeace Philippines director Amalie Obusan said it was "false and malicious" to claim the organisation was responsible for denying the world Golden Rice.

Despite 20 years in development, the International Rice Research Institute had yet to come up with a commercially-viable product, she said.

"You cannot block something that does not exist. Golden Rice, at this stage, is a fiction."

Corporations were "overhyping" Golden Rice to pave the way for approval of other more profitable genetically engineered crops, she said.

Greenpeace maintains a better solution to combating malnutrition would be encouraging farmers to grow diverse food crops rather than cash crops for export, more equitable access to food and climate-resistant agricultural methods.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs