The Northland Age Thursday, 28 January 2010

GMOs seen as a risky business -  Make users legally responsible: poll

 The majority of Northlanders and Aucklanders want strict controls over any genetically-modified (GM) plants and animals grown in their areas, according to a Colmar Brunton poll conducted late last year.

 The poll, commissioned by the Inter-Council Working Party on GMO Risk Evaluation and Management Options, found that two-thirds or more of respondents favoured regulation of at least a strength that would make users of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) legally responsible for any environmental or economic harm, either by way of local regulation or changes to national legislation.

Aimed at gauging the degree to which communities were willing to accept risks associated with the outdoor use of GMOs, and to test options for responding to these risks (although there is currently no outdoor use of GM plants or animals in Auckland and Northland), it also found that 44 percent to 55 percent of residents wanted councils to have the right to prohibit GM plants and animals, either by setting local rules or allowing communities, through their councils, the right to reject use of a particular GMO in its area when the national regulator, ERMA, is processing applications.

In terms of the extent to which councils should set rules in addition to those set by ERMA, levels of support ranged from 40 percent to 49 percent for individual council areas.

 Amongst those respondents who supported their councils setting rules, total prohibition was the most favoured form of regulation (a range of 39-57 percent), with strict liability provisions the next most favoured (22-32 percent), and prohibiting only GMOs for food production the least favoured (18-27 percent).

 The most common reasons for supporting local regulation were that not enough was known about the consequences of GM, that users of GMOs should be held accountable if something goes wrong, and that people shouldn't interfere with nature.

 Reasons for not supporting local regulation included respondents being pro- GM, that central government should set the rules, and that ERMA should make decisions over GMOs.

 Support for councils having a regulatory role was stronger in Northland than in the Auckland region, and within the Auckland region there was considerable variation between individual councils.

 For the Waitakere, Auckland City and Franklin communities, levels of support for local regulation were significantly higher than for not utilising local regulation, while in Manukau and North Shore there was significantly higher support for not having local regulation.  In Rodney and Papakura, the levels of support for and against local regulation were more evenly matched.

However, all communities strongly favoured making users of GMOs legally responsible for any economic or environmental harm that may result. Around two-thirds of those polled wanted regulations to make users of GMOs strictly liable for any harm caused, support ranging from 63 percent to 72 percent for individual councils.

At present, the user is not liable for damage resulting from an activity carried out in accordance with ERMA approval under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO).

Nor is there any requirement for applicants to prove financial fitness in case of damage, or to post bonds to cover costs should damage occur.

Costs arising from unexpected events or ineffective national regulation would tend to lie with affected parties, namely neighbouring land users and local authorities.


Future options

Support for local regulation was strongest amongst Maori, particularly in Northland, and amongst rural and semirural residents, urban views varying by region. Rural residents were more likely to favour prohibiting GMOs in both Northland and Auckland, while women were more likely than men to support local regulation, and support was greater amongst 18- to 39-year-olds than older age groups.

The poll also found clear support in both Northland and Auckland communities for only producing GM-free food, but strong support for leaving options open for GM plants and animals in the future.

Views were split over whether GM would harm the local tourism industry, Northland indicating yes and Auckland indicating no.

Both regions believed that GM would harm the local food industries. In many communities the majority view was that GM would not provide economic benefits, although the Auckland region as a whole believed it would.

The authorities that make up the working party (including the Far North and Northland Regional councils) will now examine options for responding to community concerns, including lobbying the government to amend the national legislation governing GMOs.

The changes sought include putting in place a full strict liability regime for harm caused by GMOs and/or to allowing local and regional councils the right to reject GMOs in their jurisdictions when applications are made to ERMA to trial or release GMOs.

Also to be further evaluated are options for local or regional regulation by formulating draft objectives, policies and rules under the RMA.

Meanwhile Whangarei Mayor Stan Semenoff described the collaborative approach adopted by local authorities in the Northland and Auckland regions in regard to genetic engineering as an excellent example of local government working together to address common concerns raised by their communities.

''Given that it is communities that ultimately carry the risks, the councils on the working party have taken the view that each community should be consulted as to what level of risk they are prepared to carry,'' he said.

''The communities have clearly responded that they want users of GM to carry the financial risks, and want fundamental changes to the way GMOs are presently regulated to ensure this.''