There is, so the saying goes, more than one way to skin a cat. In the Speech from the Throne in August, it was confirmed that the moratorium on commercial releases of genetically modified organisms would not be extended. At the same time, a review of the Environmental Risk Management Authority, the body charged with approving GM trials, was announced. It appeared little more than a sop to the Greens.

Now, however, it emerges that the authority is already looking at giving more weight to Maori spiritual values when it considers genetic research proposals. Scientists have good cause to be alarmed. This misguided notion has the potential to stifle their work as effectively as any prohibition on research.

The authority goes so far as to suggest that Maori spiritual concerns about genetic research - even in the absence of physical or biological risk - could be reason enough to reject research applications. Essentially, that assets the dominance of spirituality over science, modern thought and practice. Fear is granted a ranking above rational thinking. Ephemera takes precedence over agricultural research that is pivotal to this country's future well-being. It is nonsensical, and it is a recipe for increased tension. Even the much-maligned Resource Management Act does not deliver such privilege to one racial group.

It is also utterly unnecessary. Even now, the authority's procedures - for both Maori and wider public involvement - are tipped heavily against the scientific community. Case by case, opponents of genetic research can put their view. So much is the process weighted towards public participation that it can easily be hijacked by anti-GM groups.

The way is clear for filibustering through the presentation of thousands of submissions on any one research application. Even if the application is approved, the research may have been delayed to such an extent that New Zealand's leadership in the field is lost.

Opponents of GM are apt to cite experiments gone wrong. Several such claims were made to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. When the commission checked them out, they were either discredited or found not to be the total truth. The commission arrived at sensible conclusions that, while precautionary, did not involve it turning its back on science. Now, the risk management authority is threatening to undo that good work. If Maori spiritual values are given crucial weight, they will inevitably be seized upon by the opponents of GM.

Already, Ngai Tahu, the only iwi to be given "interested persons" status by the royal commission, appears to have a largely closed mind. A spokesman claims the iwi does not have a blanket rule to disapprove of all genetic research, and considers each application put before it. But it speaks volumes when he could not recollect Ngai Tahu ever approving genetic research.

Already, the iwi has declined relatively mundane research into paua and lobster, bringing the application to a dead end. Maori must be consulted if the intended research is into native species. But when a Canterbury University scientist sought approval from them for genetic research into endangered native frogs, some iwi did not even reply, presumably out of a lack of interest. Thus that work was also abandoned.

The prospect is for authority hearings so protracted that the Waitangi Tribunal will seem, by comparison, to work at the speed of light. Already, some research, such as the stalled work on paua and lobster, has been lost overseas, or will not be done at all.

Increasingly, young scientists are looking askance when they see work of merit blocked by its lack of "responsiveness" to the Maori scheme of things. Some will look for a more appropriate, and more responsive, workplace overseas. The risk management authority should be relaxing its existing rules, not extending them in such an irrational manner - for the sake of Maori, and all New Zealanders.

Herald feature: Genetic Engineering

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