By KEVIN TAYLOR, political reporter

The moratorium on commercial release of genetically modified organisms ends at midnight tonight with the biotechnology industry hailing it a milestone and opponents threatening sabotage.

But the Green Party, which has led political debate on GM, yesterday distanced itself from talk of direct action.

Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons did not condone or encourage property damage or violence, but she said her comments would make no difference because in every country where the Government had ignored concerns over GM direct action had occurred.


The Greens, having failed to change the Government's mind, will now concentrate on opposing applications to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) for GM releases.

A Crop & Food Research GM potato project at Lincoln, Christchurch, could be Erma's first application, but the agency does not expect a flood of applications.

Despite a late flurry of protests and a Herald-DigiPoll survey showing a groundswell of opposition to the end of the moratorium, the Government has not wavered.

Yesterday, five anti-GM protesters were arrested after refusing to take down tents pitched on Parliament's front lawn on Monday without permission.

Protest spokeswoman Valerie Morse warned there would be direct action against GM projects. "We will be using whatever means necessary within the non-violent toolbox."

She said GM opponents would gather in Wellington today to launch a "people's moratorium".

Police and parliamentary security staff moved in on the protesters while media representatives were busy covering National's caucus vote to install Don Brash as party leader.

Life Sciences Network executive director Francis Wevers said the biotechnology industry saw the moratorium's end as a milestone, but no applications for commercial release of genetically modified organisms were ready to be submitted.


He said people threatening action against GM projects risked heavy penalties and he suggested such action might constitute "economic sabotage".

"There's a whole lot of provisions under the Commerce Act which they may, in fact, be liable for.

"There's also ... the new prevention of terrorism legislation which they could potentially be subject to because eco-terrorism is an activity proscribed in that."

He said that while the Erma application process imposed high costs on applicants, at least there was now stability and predictability.

Environment Minister Marian Hobbs said legislation with strict rules governing the release of GMOs would take effect at midnight tonight when the moratorium expired.

She said the changes to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act were designed to underpin the Government's policy of proceeding with caution, while still preserving other opportunities like organics production.

Central to the law change was a new category of conditional release that allowed Erma to impose controls on a case-by-case basis to new organism approvals.

The law changes also include big penalties.

Fines of up to $500,000 are provided for individuals. Companies are liable for fines of $10 million, three times the value of any commercial gain from the breach, or 10 per cent of the company's turnover, whichever is greatest.

Erma chief executive Dr Bas Walker expected only a handful of applications in the next few months, and he was confident Erma had the required resources.

He said applicants would have to make their case and it was not up to Erma to do the research.

"The authority will be looking for very extensive packages of information from applicants who are contemplating the release or conditional release of a GMO."

Asked if he was worried about threats by opponents to flood the system with objections, Dr Walker said he did not have a strong view.

"It's a very open process. People have the right to make submissions and be heard in a public hearing."

Federated Farmers GM spokesman Hugh Ritchie said it supported the end of the moratorium and the technology was seen as another tool for farmers.

However, that that did not mean farmers would grow what consumers did not want.

"Farmers must be market focused. It is vital they have all the tools - including GM - available to help them compete in a global market that is distorted by subsidies and trade barriers."