By MATT NIPPERT




Heading the Environmental Risk Management Authority is not a job everyone would relish. Since the lifting of the moratorium in October, this body has become the new front line in the debate over genetic modification.



It is a debate its chairman, Neil Walker, recognises is "very fraught and highly polarised, with a very high level of public debate and concern".



The Life Sciences Network chairman William Rolleston welcomes the issue moving to Erma, where "arguments can be made on a sound scientific basis, which is a [more] controlled forum than the court of public opinion".

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Rolleston argues that public opinion has been already expressed and considered through Parliament. While "public opinion is important, what needs to be taken into consideration are the scientific issues to determine if something is safe or not".



But Tim Bale, senior lecturer in political science at Sussex University, and until last September at Victoria University, says this separation between "scientific debate" and the "court of public opinion" is spurious.



"It's in the interests of the pro-GM movement to remove public opinion from the realm of scientific experts," says Bale.



But public opinion is likely to play a crucial role in the coming year, as some anti-GM protesters pursue a campaign of direct action. This has included calls for the illegal destruction, or "decontamination" as its advocates call it, of GM crops.



This new battle is part of "the old struggle for hearts and minds", says senior lecturer in political studies at Auckland University, Paul Buchanan.



"The real question for anti-GM activists is whether or not the use of direct-action violence against property will advance their cause."



Lenka Rochford, of Wellington, is spokeswoman for the People's Moratorium Enforcement Agency - one of the newer groups which advocate direct action - and she articulates the frustration that has led for calls to take the anti-GM campaign to a new level.



"We've done petitions. We've done submissions. We've written letters to the editor. We've even got naked on Parliament Grounds. We've done it all, and nobody's listening. [Direct action] is all we've got left."

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The PMEA was born on the expiry of the moratorium. After a three-day occupation at Parliament, members dismantled their tent city and left, a symbolic act indicating they no longer had confidence in the Government to keep New Zealand GM-free.



Instead they have moved to take matters into their own hands. This month they held a camp with the express purpose of "training activists in direct action techniques". After Erma approval for a field trial of GM Roundup-resistant onions, 150 people descended on Mountain Valley School in Motueka, an independent institution running outside direct government control.



People attending were a mix of punks and anarchists, older alternative lifestylers and urban students. There were workers from Greenpeace, GM campaigners from Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington and Tauranga, and a fair contingent of backpackers from Europe. Most were new to this sharp end of the movement, but there was a hard and vocal core of veterans.



The mood was blunt, expressed succinctly by Penny Bright of Auckland. "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. If you plant it [GM crops], we'll pull it."



Workshops dealt with how far the law can be bent before it is broken. They learned how to blockade trucks and trains carrying GM produce and how to make life difficult for those trying to end the protests, by methods such as suspending themselves from tripods, difficult to dismantle without risk of injury.



Crucially they also learned how "decontamination" should be undertaken to minimise the risks of GM material spreading further into the environment.



Erma's Neil Walker expressed similar concerns, that crop-pullers may be doing the environment they wish to protect more harm than good.



Crop and Food, who are running the onion trial this year, say activists breaking into their facilities represent "the greatest potential cause of material getting away from the site".



Talk of direct action, and several actual cases, have had an effect on GM research in this country. The destruction of a potato trial in 2002 led to the loss of three years' research, says Crop and Food.



"These sorts of threats have an impact on the costs of carrying out research," says Life Science's Rolleston. "It just takes money away from science," and diverts it into increased spending on security.



Of course, increased costs for GM research leads to a decrease in GM field trial research, something activists are unlikely to lose any sleep over.



Some indicator of public support for direct action on GM can be seen in the Green Gloves register, a database of people who sign a pledge committing to pull GM crops from the ground.



It recently added its 5000th name, and spokesman Logan Petley says its roll has been swollen by people who believe that the "failing of the Government responsibility to keep New Zealand GM-free means this responsibility has fallen into the public's hands in the form of non-violent civil disobedience".



Direct action is likely to meet stiff resistance. A Crop and Food spokesman says "with regards to the onion trial, we have security measures in place and would not hesitate to prosecute if research trials were vandalised".



While there may be some public support for crop-pulling activists, it will not be reflected by the legal system. The defence of necessity (the commissioning of a crime to prevent greater harm), and self-defence have high thresholds in the courts.



The case of Quaid Hutchinson gives some indication of what public support may mean. Hutchinson, a Golden Bay anti-1080 poison campaigner, poured diesel into a bin of the possum-control poison in 2001, rendering it unusable. He later turned himself in and was charged with causing wilful damage. The judge disallowed his attempts to use the defences of necessity and self-defence.



"In the end it was a bit farcical," said Hutchinson. "Because they wouldn't allow me a defence, the jury just had to decide whether I did it or not. It still took them 45 minutes to reach a verdict."



He was found guilty and fined $7056. In the following weeks the local community and national 1080 campaign rallied behind him and helped to pay his fines.



The GM-Free movement, with a much wider support base, could be expected to exceed these efforts, but with damages from the potato trial destruction calculated at $300,000, for example, a significant increase in public support would be needed to subsidise crop-pulling.



Hutchinson's advice to activists considering direct action is cautionary ... "don't do it lightly". But he expects his experience would be similar to those who get caught destroying crops. "I think there will be a lot of support for people who do take direct action against GM crops."



Public support, however, is far from assured. Polls on GM are often contradictory, with research selectively commissioned or supported by advocates or opponents.



A Colmar Brunton poll last August showed 70 per cent support for food production remaining GM-free. This grew to 80 per cent when a clause was added indicating 71 per cent of European consumers, a significant export market, did not want to eat GM foods.



Amid the attention given to the militant edge of the movement, groups who have campaigned under a legal banner say they will be continuing their efforts.



The group that put pink bras and four-breasted women into the popular lexicon, Mothers and Daughters Against Genetic Engineering (Madge), are "ladies in waiting at present", says frontwoman Allanah Currie.



Currie says most of their members are busy "doing laundry because it's school holidays" but a legal wrangle with Crop and Food is also inhibiting their activities.



The Crown Research Institute is seeking $25,000 in costs over a failed judicial review of the onion trial - Madge says they have only $1030.



Currie says their efforts will again focus on "purse power", or the use of economic pressure to lobby for GM-free foodstuffs.



"Consumer is queen in this argument - 80 per cent of the groceries in this country are bought by women."



This approach, using economic boycotts, has had some measure of success.



Simon Terry of the Sustainability Council says that "perhaps the most significant lead-out in last year's debate was the response of leading food companies" in deciding to ensure themselves GM-free.



These decisions were, he says, "based on the observation that consumer resistance to GM ingredients was not going to go away".



A significant portion of the "purse power" campaigns is the research undertaken by Greenpeace, specifically its GE Free Food Guide, now in its third year of publication. The guide colour-codes food companies in terms of their use of GM ingredients, ranging from green (have removed GM), to orange (in process of removal), and red (containing GM).



Steve Abel of Greenpeace says one interesting thing to develop from communication with food companies has been the wording of company statements.



"They have shifted from condescending 'public misunderstanding of science' and pro-GM propaganda to 'we are acknowledging public concern and acting accordingly'."



Food company Arnotts & Campbells last year slipped from green to red and as a consequence were scheduled to be targeted by a PMEA protest campaign. A day before the protests were due to begin the company released a statement making a strong commitment to source GM-free ingredients, saying Greenpeace had misinterpreted its policy statement.



Mainland Dairy and Cadbury & Pascalls, both listed as red, did not return calls to discuss their status on the Greenpeace list.



Inside Parliament, the Green Party has not given up its fight.



Co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons says the Greens will keep up the pressure.



"If something goes wrong, the Government is going to be held accountable and responsible, because the Government set it up that way."



Anti-GM groups at a glance:


- more than just GM, but certainly its most vigorous opponent in Parliament.



- policy think-tank backed by several prominent New Zealanders including the late Sir Peter Elworthy.



- an information centre for other groups.



- an organisation that accredits farmers with organic status.



- an educational organisation run by doctors and scientists.



- international environmental non-governmental organisation.



- lobby group of women who support GM-free food.



- a pledge site to support non-violent direct action against GM.



- direct action facilitator.