A landmark High Court decision backing Northland councils' right to make regulations about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is already under attack from the Environment Minister, who says the ruling could hamper medical research.

Last Thursday, Justice Mary Peters ruled in the High Court in favour of the Whangarei District and Northland Regional councils, Soil and Health, GE Free Northland and other groups' argument that local governments have that right under the Resource Management Act (RMA). Justice Peters dismissed Federated Farmers' appeal against a prior Environmental Court judgment to the same effect.

Federated Farmers' argument was that local government had no role legislating on GMOs as they came under the over-arching Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) laws.

Local authorities proposing or already with a prohibition on GMOs in their plans are the Northland Regional, Far North, Whangarei, Hastings and Auckland District councils.

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In her decision, Justice Peters said the Environment Court was not persuaded an overlap between the RMA and HSNO meant GMOs should be excluded from regional policy statements or plans.

But Environment Minister Nick Smith came out saying the Government would review the "appropriateness of councils being involved in regulating GMOs", prompted by advice over an Auckland Hospital liver cancer vaccine trial involving a GMO.

With the RMA providing for existing-use rights, and because the liver cancer trial is under way, it could continue but could not be expanded.

"The new Auckland Unitary Plan prohibits the release of any GMO and would not allow any such future medical treatments," Dr Smith said.

"It does not make sense for local councils to duplicate the role of the Environmental Protection Authority [EPA]. I have been advised by the EPA that the use of GMOs in modern medicine is growing and that they expect further applications."

Options include changing the law to clarify that controls on GMOs are determined by the EPA, not councils, he said.

Martin Robinson, GE Free Northland spokesman, said Dr Smith was "trying to obfuscate the issue" by invoking research in a medical laboratory as a reason why local authorities should not be allowed to ban outdoor GMO trials and other use.

He said the High Court ruling backed up a careful, collaborative process that had wide-ranging support.