Northland Regional Council is being coy on whether to continue with the controversial exclusion of a precautionary approach to the use of genetically engineered materials in Northland from its Proposed Regional Plan.

In July 2019 – under a previous council - NRC decided to exclude this precautionary approach against genetically modified organisms (GMO) from the plan. Whangārei District Council (WDC) and Far North District Council (FNDC) have jointly appealed this decision.

NRC chairwoman Penny Smart – who now leads a new council elected in October 2019 - said the council had made a decision on whether it would continue with its July 2019 choice to exclude a precautionary approach to GMO in the Proposed Regional Plan.

But she referred further comment beyond that to NRC staff. Jonathan Gibbard, group manager strategy, governance and engagement, said queries around the NRC decision - including what decision had been made, why it had been arrived at, what that decision might mean for Northland and which way current councillors voted on the decision - would be responded to as a request under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA). Inquiry responses under this act can take up to 20 working days.

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The joint WDC/FNDC appeal to the NRC GMO approach in its Proposed Regional Plan has now gone to the Environment Court for resolution.

Environment Court pre-hearing conferences around Proposed Regional Plan hearing challenges appeals are scheduled in the Whangārei District Court today . The plan's GMO exclusion is not formally listed among scheduled conference topics, but there is a "general provisions, plan structure" topic on the list.

An Environment Court spokesperson said the mediation date for NRC to respond to the joint WDC and FNDC appeal would be set after today's pre-hearings. GE Free Northland chairwoman Zelka Grammer said she was hoping NRC would choose not to defend its current exclusion of genetically engineered materials in the region when the Environment Court notifies a mediation date for the issue's consideration.

NRC's council has changed since NRC voted to exclude the GMO precautionary approach in July.Grammer hoped the new NRC council would now decide not to defend the joint WDC and FNDC appeal.

July 2019 saw a split NRC vote between eight of the council's nine then councillors voting 4:4 on whether to exclude the precautionary approach to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from the Proposed Regional Plan. Then chairman Bill Shepherd used his casting vote in favour of doing so (then councillor Penny Smart did not vote because of technical process reasons after she was overseas at one stage when councillors met to consider the matter). Councillors Shepherd, David Sinclair (then deputy-chair), John Bain and Rick Stolwerk voted in favour of exclusion. Then councillors Blaikie, Dimery, Finlayson and Yeoman voted to include the precautionary approach.

NRC chairwoman Penny Smart is not saying if the council has changed its controversial decision not to have a precautionary approach to the use of genetically engineered materials in its Regional Plan.
NRC chairwoman Penny Smart is not saying if the council has changed its controversial decision not to have a precautionary approach to the use of genetically engineered materials in its Regional Plan.

The council makeup - and the balance of councillors in favour of likely including the precautionary approach - has changed in the wake of the October 2019 elections. Only four of the previous elected representatives are on the post-October council.

Two of those four re-elected councillors who voted in favour of exclusion are still on the council – councillors Bain and Stolwerk.

The remaining three – and all four newly elected councillors - are among seven councillors likely to favour including the precautionary approach.

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The three re-elected are Smart (chair) (who was unable to vote in July 2019) plus Blaikie (deputy-chair) and Yeoman (who have previously voted in favour of the precautionary approach).

The four new councillors are Marty Robinson (the GE Free Northland committee member who unseated Shepherd as the October election's highest-polling candidate), Jack Craw (Northland Forest and Bird chairman at the time of election who has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the way Shepherd used his casting vote in July 2019), Colin "Toss" Kitchen (a former FNDC councillor and part of the unanimous FNDC council vote in favour appealing the NRC decision) and Amy Macdonald (a freshwater ecologist who worked for the Department of Conservation when elected and chairs the NRC climate change working party).

A precautionary or prohibitive approach would mean genetically modified organisms not being trialled in or introduced to Northland.

Grammer said it was important to have the precautionary/prohibitive approach in NRC's Proposed Regional Plan to provide Northland GMO protection in the coastal marine area as well as on land. Equivalent district council plans covered land only.