NO to Genetic Engineering

NO to Genetic Engineering

("Our Town" column)


Whangarei Mayor Morris Cutforth

in the Whangarei Report, Thursday 28 April 2011


A constant theme of my mayoralty is that Council needs to listen to the people. A prime example of the will of the people making itself felt is over the controversial issue of genetic engineering.

GE is the 'most-submitted' issue WDC has ever had, attracting over 7,000 submissions of which around 90% were in favour of ensuring Whangarei District remains GE free. Council has heard what people have said and supported it. Last week we voted unanimously to investigate regulating genetically modified organisms through the District Plan in conjunction with other councils in Northland and Auckland. This will most likely mean that releases of GMOs will be prohibited and resource consents will be needed for GE trials in Northland and Auckland.

I am delighted that I have come to Council at this epic point in an eight year journey, where in essence we are saying 'no!' to genetic engineering. Before I was elected to Council I didn't have a strong view one way or the other about GE, but since I have become more involved I have met many people who are passionate about it. After listening to their stories about what can go wrong - often at a very real and personal level - I can understand their passion and I am glad we are able to do something practical at last. And just as importantly, Whangarei and Northland are being seen as taking the lead in an important national and international issue.

What the Council resolution means in practical terms is that WDC will talk to other councils on the Inter-council Working Party on GMO Risk Evaluation and Management Options (Far North, Kaipara and Auckland) about what kind of regulations can be used to prevent problems with GMO land uses. A joint change to District Plans is one of a number of options.

One of the most important things holding us back up till now has been the question of liability. We have been concerned that if there was an introduction or a trial of GMOs and something went wrong, if the person responsible had done everything right and obtained the appropriate approvals, they could not be held responsible for cleaning up the mess.

Recently however, central government has confirmed that local councils can restrict or prevent the use of GMOs in their district or region under the Resource Management Act provided that they can show that it is necessary on top of the national HSNO regulations. In essence, they are saying they believe councils do have the legal ability to put the right kind of protection in place.

It's this new development that has been the springboard for us to show some leadership. Our District is strong in farming and tourism, two areas that have the potential to suffer greatly from a GMO trial gone wrong. Reputations take years to build up, and Whangarei is well regarded as a place of clean, green beauty with a healthy pastoral sector. With the immediacy of today's traditional and social media networks, a reputation can be altered forever in a few seconds. Even today, quite some time after the Chinese melamine-tainted milk scandal, it is difficult to think of China's dairy industry as we did before that incident.

The other councils on the inter-council working party are going to be looking at this issue soon too and I am hopeful that a joint approach can be managed - I am hearing some encouraging murmurs in that direction. If it's not possible though, this Council will go it alone - we are that determined, and we know this is what our people want. I am so very proud of this Council for the stand it has taken. All the other councils in New Zealand are looking to see what happens in Northland - and it is likely they will follow our lead.