Northland Regional Council's GMO decision and process met with outrage

23 July 2019 Northern Advocate article

"Northland Regional Council's GMO decision and process met with outrage"

by reporter Lindy Laird


Environmental groups and individuals have been scathing about the regional council turning its back on provisions that would prohibit genetically modified organisms being trialled in or introduced to Northland.

At its general meeting last Tuesday, a casting vote by chairman Bill Shepherd narrowly tipped the vote against a GMO precautionary approach being stipulated in the new Northland Regional Plan.

Critics, including at least one NRC member, say the decision was based on processes which were ''flawed'', ''hard to justify'', ''a betrayal'' and ''undemocratic''.

It also puts Northland out of sync with the anti-GMO policies of the Far North and Whangārei District Councils and the super-sized unitary Auckland Council. Small, in-recovery Kaipara District Council has not yet formed a GMO policy.

Of 83 submissions received on the GMO topic in the proposed new plan, 82 supported the inclusion of precautionary or prohibiting language as outlined in earlier recommendations and in the over-arching Regional Policy Statement. The one submission against it was from Federated Farmers, an organisation with which NRC chairman Bill Shepherd has had long involvement.

At edition time Shepherd was unavailable to comment on his current or past links with FFNZ, where exactly GMO now stands in the region's over-arching regional management document and other aspects of the decision. NRC chief executive Malcolm Nicolson was also unavailable.

While Shepherd is copping much derision for his alleged relationship with the farming group, his casting vote was necessary when the scales sat even with four council members voting for the GMO prohibition (Justin Blaikie, Mike Finlayson, Paul Dimery and Joce Yeoman) and four against it (Shepherd, David Sinclair, Rick Stolwerk and John Bain). Kaipara representative Penny Smart was sidelined from voting as she had been overseas during the March hearings.

Te Hiku representative Finlayson is outraged by the process and outcome and had no qualms putting his personal view in print in the Far North paper Northland Age .

''To avoid our responsibility to enable our local communities to have a say whether they want GMOs released into their local environment is a gross abrogation of our duty of care,'' he said.


''The move by the chairman to control this debate is a massive blow to local democracy, and undermines my faith in his ability to be impartial in this debate. I feel this council has been hijacked by Federated Farmers.''

Watch groups say an appeal will be lodged in the Environmental Court where the council decision is likely to be overturned, but not before a lengthy and expensive process, ultimately costing ratepayers.

A leading architect and former chair of the Inter Council Working Party on Genetic Engineering (GE), which drew up a territorial authorities' anti-GMO bloc - or block - from Auckland's southern boundary to Cape Reinga, Dr Kerry Grundy said the decision was disappointing, hard to justify and spurns what the council already has in its ''higher order'' policy statement.

Grundy, now retired and speaking as a member of the public, said the NRC had taken ''a very unusual and undemocratic'' route in removing the coastal marine zone from the rest of the proposed plan, for which submissions on water, air and soil were heard by commissioners, and putting it in the hands of the council members.

''It is an abuse of process. Clearly in this case the decision is made on the whim of the chairman who has strong ties with Federated Farmers. It does not represent the will of the people,'' Grundy said.

He said an appeal in the Environment Court would ''put the council to enormous expense to defend its stance'' - a stance not supported by the majority of Northlanders.

GE Free Northland and GE Free NZ said the process which has amounted to a two-year delay in getting the policy signed off was highly controversial, with the NRC spending nearly $14,000 of ratepayer funds this year ''investigating and deliberating on'' the already clearly resolved GE/GMOs issue.

President of GE Free NZ, Claire Bleakley said it was an ''overt manipulation of process'' and [NRC chairman] Shepherd's personal involvement with FFNZ ''constitutes a serious breach in his duty of care as an elected representative.''

Martin Robinson, spokesman for GE-Free Northland, said the NRC's action ignored overwhelming scientific, legal, economic, environmental, and cultural evidence.

That group has long argued that a GMO-ban enshrined in policy would help protect Northland's valuable agricultural, horticultural, apiculture, pastoral, forestry sector, and ''Northland, naturally'' brand. ENDS