The regulation of GMOs is the latest curly issue to face the Environment Minister.

Nick Smith is a minister who is never far from trouble.

Occasionally it is of his own making. But mostly these days, it is about holding a portfolio in Environment that seems to toss up increasingly difficult issues and increasingly polarising views.

Another big issue landed on his plate on Wednesday when the High Court upheld an Environment Court ruling allowing regional councils to "make provision for the control of use of genetically modified organisms through regional policy statements and plans" under the Resource Management Act.

Fortunately, the Government has reacted quickly and looks set to legislate over the decision.


The regulation of GMOs is not like Sunday trading, which can be easily farmed off to a local level.

The prospect of having different sets of rules up and down the country applying to such a powerful and specialised arm of science would be a nightmare. It is something that should be left to the experts.

But whatever happens next in that space will be controversial and divisive.

As Smith himself noted in a lecture at Lincoln University this week: We have a bad habit in New Zealand of turning environmental issues into polarised battlegrounds of winners and losers.

The minister has an important place in the evolution of National.

He used to be the light green fringe-dweller in the dark blue party. While the party talked about finding the balance between environmental values and economic development, it has always leaned more heavily towards economic development.

But the centre of gravity in New Zealand is shifting more towards environmentalism and National is moving with it.

Having the Greens as an established part of the political landscaped has undoubtedly helped to make environmental issues more mainstream.


The fact that United Future's Peter Dunne, Mr Common Sense, is now seen as one of Parliament's staunchest environmentalists is more evidence of a shift.

Another big factor has been a generational change in addressing climate change which, ever the pragmatist, John Key has embraced.

His appointment of Paula Bennett to the climate change portfolio and Simon Bridges to oversee greater fuel efficiency in transport have helped modernise National's environmental credentials alongside Smith's.

But Smith is the old green man of National. He is a details person to the core. He gives a good impression of being more concerned with the actual issues at hand than the politics of the issues.

Water quality and management are among the big issues on his plate, intensified by the recent contamination of the Havelock North water supply.

One of the gems from his lecture at Lincoln University was an illustration of why people should not rush to judgment over Havelock North.


He explained there had been a long debate in Nelson about contamination of the lower reaches of the Maitai River, which was first noticed in 2002.

Farmers were initially blamed, then bird and waterfowl.

When the culprit turned out to be a human source, it was thought to be seepage from old sewer pipes.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

In the end, eight years later, it turned out the problem was coming from toilets in the council library because they had been wrongly plumbed into the storm-water rather than the sewerage system.

Smith is not always the perfect operator.

His enthusiasm for a goal can lead to poor process. Who can forget his magical bus tour straight after last year's Budget to show the vacant Government land in Auckland on which new houses could be built " only it some of it turned out not to be Government land?


And he served the Government poorly in his handling of the Kermadec Sanctuary, ambushing the Maori fisheries commission with a decision that effectively extinguished part of the 1992 fisheries settlement.

For years, National condemned Labour for extinguishing the rights of Maori to test ownership of the foreshore and seabed in the courts and it repealed Labour's alternative regime when it came to power in 2008.

What National did is no different to what Labour did except in scale and except it has offered nothing in return for axing established fishing rights.

Smith disregarded proper process for what he saw as a "greater good" in a marine sanctuary.

But it was clear from the Seafood New Zealand conference this week that the Maori fisheries Commission has not forgiven him.

It sees Smith as aligned with the ultra-greens, who want to lock up large parts of the ocean for "ideological" grounds, even when sustainability is not threatened.


Smith has largely avoided any trouble with the Kermadecs issue because, whether the ends justified the means or not, it is popular.

GM-based miracles of modern medicine are certainly reducing the fears around GM.

He will not find the going so smooth as he tackles the GMO issue and councils.

But as the science elsewhere is advancing, the debate will move past the fears of crossing a frog with a flower to one of people-power and regional autonomy.

Genetic modification has advanced a great deal since National passed the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act in 1996 (which regulates genetically modified organisms) and Labour instigated a Royal Commission of Inquiry into GM in 2000, which recommended advancing "cautiously".

New Zealand has barely advanced at all under the "cautious" approach " only two genetically modified organisms have been approved in 20 years, an equine flu vaccine and a trial for a liver cancer vaccine.


In July more than 100 Nobel laureates wrote to Greenpeace asking it to end its opposition to genetically modified food, in particular a new type of rice that had been developed to provide vitamin A to counter disease in Third World countries.

But for a nation whose wealth has been built on advances in agricultural science, New Zealand appears to be a relative backwater.

How good would it be to find a way to genetically modify possums to stop breeding, to help actually achieve a predator-free New Zealand?

How good would it be to find a GM way to reduce the emissions of livestock in the interests of climate change mitigation?

Nick Smith could do a lot worse than expand the review of the councils court decision to look at the constraints with the HSNO regime so New Zealand can properly join the 21st century.

It is a debate that would be inviting trouble. But the world is moving on and it is time New Zealand moved with it.