Campaigners against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are hailing a High Court ruling allowing regional councils to decide whether GMOs can be banned in their areas.
But a group representing bio-scientists says the country is in danger of becoming a "bioscience backwater" following today's ruling by Justice Mary Peters at the Whangarei High Court in favour of Whangarei District Council, Northland Regional Council, Soil & Health, GE Free Northland and others.
Justice Peters had dismissed an appeal by Federated Farmers of a decision in May last year finding there was jurisdiction under the Resource Management Act (RMA) for local councils to control the use of GMOs through regional policy instruments.
At the time, Roger Ludbrook of the Northland branch of the farmer lobby group told the Herald that work wasn't for regional councils, but the Environmental Protection Authority.
In February, Federated Farmers filed an appeal with the High Court, arguing that local government had no role in legislating about GMOs and that the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO), not the RMA, was the overarching legislation that governs how GMOs were used in New Zealand.
Justice Peters, however, stated in her decision today that the Environment Court "was conscious of the overlap between the RMA and HSNO but it was not persuaded that overlap required a conclusion that GMOs (and other new organisms) are required to be excluded from consideration in the promulgation of a regional policy statement or plan".
Responding to the ruling, Federated Farmers president Dr William Rolleston re-asserted the group's concerns.
"GMO technology is powerful and as such should be used responsibly and be appropriately regulated at central government level, not regional council level," he said.
"Regional authorities are not appropriately equipped trying to regulate GMOs which may mean new emerging science which can have considerable benefit for our country will never get off the ground."
Rolleston said it was notable that the High Court had stopped short of confirming that it was appropriate for councils to ban the technology, and rather, had confirmed that councils had the right to control the effects of GMOs, such as a plant's growth rate, if this was to have an environmental impact, just as it had with any other organism.
"The question of whether a council has the right to control an organism simply for the reason it is a GMO, has not been confirmed and this leaves that critical question open."
Marion Thomson, chairwoman of the group Soil and Health, welcomed the decision.
"It confirms the ability of all local councils to determine GE policies in their areas," she said.
"We support communities around the country who want to keep Aotearoa New Zealand clean, green and GE-free."
Her group, along with GE Free Northland, argued there were no economic, health or environmental case for GMOs, and that there were "huge uncertainties" around their adverse effects on natural resources and ecosystems.
The groups claimed that GMOs would be very difficult to eradicate if released into the environment, and further argued there was the potential for "serious economic loss" for regions marketing their products and tourism under New Zealand's clean green brand.
But NZBIO, which represents bioscientists in New Zealand, argues there is no risk around GMOs and has called on the Government to update the 20-year-old HSNO Act.
"You only have to look around the world to find a weight of evidence that modern genetic modification technologies are safe," its chief executive, Dr Will Barker said.
"They can be a solution to the world's mounting problem on how to feed its increasing populations.
"These technologies can also be a solution to providing renewable energies and provide replacement chemicals to those that are currently made from oil."
Last month, some New Zealand scientists backed an open letter by more than 100 Nobel laureates urging environmental group Greenpeace to end its opposition to GM food, in particular a new rice which had the potential to reduce disease in third-world countries.
NZBIO, which is bringing top international policy scientists to its conference in Auckland next month, said New Zealand was now being "left behind".
"It has already lost a swathe of bioscience PhDs to overseas, and world leading technology being produced in this country relating to the reduction of methane and other greenhouse gases has either been swallowed up by overseas investors, or is likely to be sold to New Zealand's competitors."
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.