Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Federated Farmers loses court battle over GMOs

Marchers against GMO outside the Northland Regional Council building on Water Street in Whangarei in 2013. Photo / John Stone
Marchers against GMO outside the Northland Regional Council building on Water Street in Whangarei in 2013. Photo / John Stone

Federated Farmers has lost a court battle with the Northland Regional Council over regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The lobby group had lodged an appeal with the Environment Court over whether the regional council had jurisdiction under the Resource Management Act (RMA) to ban the outdoor use of GMO matter.

The challenge opposed the precautionary GMO provisions in the Northland Regional Policy Statement, a guiding policy document for resource management in Northland for the next decade.

The appeal centred around whether regulation of GMOs in New Zealand was undertaken solely around the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO), as Federated Farmers contested, or whether some level regulation could be undertaken under the RMA.

Environment Court Judge Laurie Newhook this week rejected the appeal, holding that there was power under the RMA for regional councils to make provision for control of the use of GMOs through regional policy statements and plans.

Anti-GMO groups Soil and Health and GE Free Northland, which supported the council in the case, as did Whangarei District Council, today applauded the decision.

"Local authorities need to be able to respond to their communities' aspirations," GE Free Northland spokesman Martin Robinson said.

"The laws around liability for GMO contamination resulting from the release of an approved GMO, for example, are non-existent."

Mr Robinson claimed there were risks from GMOs to the economy, the environment, biosecurity, and cultural and social values.

"Therefore councils may want take a precautionary approach and impose conditions on the outdoor use of GMOs in their area," he said,

"This could include, for example, identifying areas where the use of GMOs is not appropriate, or establishing policies and criteria for assessing the potential impact on other resources, such as existing organic farms."

Federated Farmers Northland president Roger Ludbrook, although not a personal advocate of GMOs, said he was disappointed by the ruling, and argued the Environmental Protection Authority already offered sufficient regulation.

"The EPA is funded by the Government, and to date they haven't allowed the release of any commerical GMOs into the country," he said.

"My issue with this is if it brings any costs to the regional council, that would be really stupid because the EPA has already been organised to do this work."

Mark Ross, chief executive of industry group AgCarm, described the decision as "concerning" and echoed Mr Ludbrook's view that the EPA was the body to make technical decisions on GMOs.

Several councils, including Auckland, Northland, Bay of Plenty and Hastings, already have precautionary or prohibitive wording regarding GMOs in their plans, and this was not the first time this had been challenged.

In 2013, the Environment Court ruled against a challenge by Scion and allowed the Bay of Plenty Regional Council to retain reference to GMOs in its Regional Policy Statement.

GMOs in New Zealand

• In 2001, a Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was established to investigate and report on issues surrounding genetic modification in New Zealand. It recommended that New Zealand should proceed with caution while at the same time ensuring that any opportunities from genetic modification are preserved.

• EPA considers the benefits and risks of introducing new organisms (including GM organisms). This is done under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 (the HSNO Act 1996).

• No GM seeds have been approved for release into the New Zealand environment. The law does not permit unapproved GM grains or seeds to be knowingly imported or planted. If GM seeds are detected prior to import, the consignment will not be allowed into New Zealand.

• There are strict penalties under the HSNO Act for introducing new organisms (including GM organisms) into New Zealand without approval.

- NZME.

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