Federated Farmers has dropped a legal battle against rulings allowing regional councils to decide whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be banned in their areas.

But the farmers lobby stands by its position that GMO technology should not be regulated by councils, but by government.

The move signals the end of a long-running legal challenge against Northland councils and groups that oppose the use of GMOs.

Federated Farmers earlier this year went to the Court of Appeal, after its appeals to the Environment Court and High Court were dismissed.

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Federated Farmers had contested local government had no role in legislating about GMOs and that the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO), not the Resource Management Act, was the overarching legislation that governs how GMOs were used in New Zealand.

That most recent ruling, in the High Court at Whangarei last August, found in favour of Whangarei District Council, Northland Regional Council, the Soil & Health Association, GE Free Northland and others.

Justice Mary Peters found at the time that, while there was an overlap between the RMA and HSNO, that didn't mean GMOs should be required to be excluded from consideration in regional policy statements or plans.

Today, Federated Farmers confirmed it was withdrawing its appeal, just weeks before a scheduled hearing, after concluding recent amendments to the RMA would likely have "materially reduced" the prospects of winning it.

Those amendments had effectively blocked the Minister for the Environment from being able to permit GMO crops in regions that had elected to remain GMO-free or impose controls on the use of GMOs.

But the withdrawal didn't change the group's view that citizens, including farmers, should be free to do things that have been approved by a central government agency, president Katie Milne said.

"This type of technology must be used responsibly and be appropriately regulated, so it's important all decisions around GMOs are managed robustly at central government level, not regional council level."

Milne argued there was an "overwhelming case" for economic, health or environmental benefits of GMOs, including pest eradication efforts, agricultural technology to increase production while lowering methane emissions and nitrate leaching, or new medical treatments such as the Pexa-Vec liver cancer trial, which received GMO release approval by the EPA last year.

NZBIO, which represents bioscientists in New Zealand, has also argued there is no risk around GMOs and has called on the Government to update the 20-year-old HSNO Act.

Not doing so could mean New Zealand became a "bio-science backwater", the group had argued.

Milne said genetic modification was already used here in many medicines to fight cancer and treat conditions such as diabetes.

It was also used in animal vaccines and imported animal feed, and many, if not most, of our cheeses were made using genetically modified enzymes, she said.

It was also revealed earlier this year that genetically modified petunias have been growing in gardens here for the last five years.

"Nevertheless, rather than pursuing the appeal, Federated Farmers has concluded that it would be more productive to sit down with the Northland local authorities and try to work out where the new boundaries on their jurisdiction to manage GMOs in Northland now lie," Milne said.

The Soil & Health Association welcomed Federated Farmers' decision.

"Both the High Court and Environment Court have ruled that regional councils have jurisdiction under the Resource Management Act (RMA) to regulate the use of GMOs through regional policy statements or plans," chairman Graham Clarke said.

"The recent RMA amendments further entrench the legal rights of councils to do so. Challenging these decisions would only have cost both us, the other parties involved and Federated Farmers themselves a lot of unnecessary time and money."

The Soil & Health Association argued there was no economic, health or environmental case for GMOs, which it said could threaten New Zealand's clean, green brand.

New Zealand producers would be able to continue benefiting from a non-GMO food market currently valued at US$250 billion (NZ$360b), the association said.

GE Free Northland also welcomed the move.

"We urge Federated Farmers to withdraw their other outstanding vexatious appeals against the Whangarei District Council and Far North District Council excellent collaborative GMO plan changes, the Auckland Unitary Plan, and the Hastings District Plan in Hawke's Bay," chairwoman Zelka Grammer said.

New Zealand and GMOs

• 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.
• The 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.