The Government appears likely to block attempts by councils to set stricter rules on genetically modified organisms which are designed to increase protection for food-producing regions and vineyards.
Environment Minister Amy Adams said she was concerned about councils' plans to place bans on the release of GM materials into the environment and limits on outdoor trials of new organisms in their regions.
Some North Island councils were planning to write higher standards into their planning documents because it felt central Government's rules did not provide enough protection from potential hazards or the costs to councils of any GM-related effects.
The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is primarily responsible for regulating new organisms in New Zealand. But an inter-council working party made up of Auckland and Northland councils recommended in February that local authorities regulate the outdoor use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) through their planning documents.
The working party concluded that legislation did not adequately cover councils or primary producers in the event of a GM-related adverse event. The group believed the Resource Management Act allowed councils to set their own rules.
Ms Adams said she was concerned about local government straying from the national framework for GMOs. She said it raised broader questions about the RMA because the legislation was "almost limitless".
"We don't allow councils to set an alcohol purchase age of 25 while the national age is 18, or to set their own fishing quotas," she said.
The minister has asked officials to look at councils' attempts to establish regionally-specific rules for new organisms, because she felt that the law needed clarifying. She would not confirm whether this would be dealt with in the Government's second wave of RMA reforms this year, but said she wanted it resolved "sooner rather than later".
An amendment to the RMA would upset local authorities, some of which have been developing GMO policy for ten years.
Auckland Council will consider whether the working party's recommendations should be included in the council's Unitary Plan in July.
Councillor Wayne Walker, chair of the council's Environment Forum, said public submissions on the issue were heavily in favour of a more controlled approach to GE testing.
He said: "It is a precautionary approach. It doesn't outright prevent genetically modified organisms in the environment but it makes it much, much more difficult because it imposes responsibility, accountability, and liability on the applicant which is where it should be."
Other local authorities have progressed further, with Whangarei District Council agreeing in principle to banning the release of GMOs into the environment and making field trials of GMOs a discretionary activity.
Hastings District Council has also proposed formalising its GM-free status for food producers. Lobby group Pure Hawkes Bay has been pushing for the the region to follow the example of historic wine-producing regions such as Champagne and Tuscany in declaring a moratorium on GM trials.
If the Labour Party entered Government, it would make sure that the EPA respected any local government conditions on GMOs.
The Green Party called for the minister to back off from her threats to councils this morning.
GE spokesman Steffan Browning said that councils had established that current regulations did not cover them or farmers in the event of a GE contamination.
"So what is this Government's response? Same as usual, change the law to take away local democracy."
He said that councils, prompted by their communities, led the way on New Zealand's nuclear-free policy, which was now a proud national policy.
"It's entirely rational for a council to ask GE growers to put aside resources to pay for any crop contamination, and to publically notify an application to release GE crops. Farmers have a right to know if their neighbours are going to be using GE, and ratepayers shouldn't have to pay for contamination or liability costs."
*Hasting District Council - agrees in principle to a moratorium on GMO releases to limit risk to agriculture and viticulture
*Whangarei District Council - agreed in principle to ban GMO releases and make trials a discretionary activity
*Auckland Council - will consider putting GMO limits in Unitary Plan in July