Bob Forlong: Responsible GM approach will remain

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The use of GM in New Zealand is research aimed at developing resistance to diseases and pests in plants and animals. Photo / Greg Bowker
The use of GM in New Zealand is research aimed at developing resistance to diseases and pests in plants and animals. Photo / Greg Bowker

The regime governing genetic modification in New Zealand is one of the strictest in the world and the Environmental Protection Authority carries out its role openly and responsibly.

The EPA is responsible for regulating all research, importation, development, field testing and release of GM organisms.

We carry out our responsibilities under a regime underpinned by the findings of a Royal Commission on Genetic Modification which recommended New Zealand "should proceed carefully, minimising and managing risk".

These regulations were recently brought into the public spotlight by a High Court ruling which quashed a determination by the EPA around the scope of the regulations governing GM.

Despite the claims of the Sustainability Council, who took the appeal to the High Court, this ruling does not signal that the EPA is about to abandon its cautious approach or has misunderstood its regulatory role.

Rather than indicating a problem, the facts point to a regulator committed to following a fair and robust process. The EPA has acted responsibly in the face of a difficult judgment on regulations struggling to keep up with fast-moving technology.

Although the application for a determination relating to the scope of the regulations was not required to be publicly notified, the EPA sought comments from the Sustainability Council.

We took this action to gain the best possible outcome in a situation where we are operating under regulations that are difficult to interpret.

When the case went before Justice Mallon, the EPA did not oppose the appeal, but took a neutral stance, presenting the court with balanced legal arguments to assist with interpretation. We said the wording in the regulations presented difficulties and we would welcome the court's guidance.

Justice Mallon acknowledged the shortcomings of the regulations and said "the regulation is not well drafted".

Since the court's finding was released, the Ministry for the Environment has confirmed its intention to review the regulations to ensure they take into account evolving technologies.

The main use of GM in New Zealand is research aimed at developing resistance to diseases and pests in plants and animals, improving plant and animal breeding techniques, modifying plants and animals to produce medical products and identifying genetic variation in endangered and other native species.

While the regulations may need to be refreshed, the regime governing GM remains among the strictest in the world. Approval is required for the release of any living organisms that do not already exist in New Zealand, including any GM organisms.

Strict conditions are placed on field tests to reduce any potential risks. The EPA's decision to approve or decline an application, or any determination on the scope of the regulations, can be appealed against to the High Court.

If any application goes ahead, the conditions are monitored, enforced and amended as necessary by the Ministry for Primary Industries and the EPA.

The EPA will continue to carry out its role as a responsible regulator that "proceeds carefully, minimising and managing risk".

Rob Forlong is chief executive of the Environmental Protection Authority.

- NZ Herald

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