New Zealand Institute of Forestry President condemns illegal destruction of GM trees trial at forest research institute Scion in Rotorua as 'unjustified and an attack on innovation'

WELLINGTON, New Zealand , April 16, 2012 (press release) – The President of the NZ Institute of Forestry, Dr Andrew McEwen, today condemned the destruction over Easter of a trial of genetically modified trees at Scion (the Forest Research Institute), in Rotorua as unjustified and an attack on innovation, established processes of governance and democracy itself.

New Zealand’s economy is dependent on our good growing conditions and the agriculture and forest products we produce. We have maintained an enviable standard of living by economic and scientific innovation but current success is not a matter of divine right nor is it guaranteed.

Genetic engineering holds both promise and risks for New Zealand. We know well the costs of poor decisions related to the release of plants and animals that haven’t evolved in balance with the flora and fauna of this country. It is equally true that as a nation we have benefited hugely from the meat, milk, wool and timber derived from the introduction of ‘exotic genetics’. We can expect to continue to benefit from ruminants bred to produce more with less methane emissions and from trees that grow quickly, produce less pollen or require less tending.

It is right that proposals such as the Scion trial are subject to expert and independent scrutiny before a decision is made to proceed. It is right that that scrutiny includes the widest range of input including that from ardent critics of genetic technology.

The trial in question was the subject of exhaustive assessment by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (now Environmental Protection Agency) before its approval, including scrutiny by Maori. It can only be assumed that an individual or individuals who didn’t like the outcome of the processes put in place by our elected representatives has decided to take the law into their own hands.

It is interesting that this action has occurred at the same time as the Land and Water Forum is examining the use of “consultative processes”, as a way of reducing the costs and delays in resource management. The argument advanced in that Forum is that we all lose from expensive adversarial decision-making processes; that we all benefit from fully informed and scientifically robust discussion where the wisdom of all stakeholders is brought to bear. But what message does the destruction of research trials, approved after extensive consultation and examination of evidence, give to those being asked to forgo rights of appeal in favour of consultation and reasoned discussion?
The Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman has also called for better use of evidence in policy making. Evidence on the risks and benefits of genetic modification come from carefully designed trials such as the one at Scion that has been destroyed.

Irrespective of what you may think about the science of genetics, it should be a concern to us all that some in society are so convinced of their position that they have no qualms in imposing their will by force on others, having failed to achieve their desires following established paths.

The pace of change and the relatively low costs inherent in genetic engineering suggests that in a few years the only real control on ‘field release’ will be the integrity of those involved in the developments. That integrity could be tested by a belief that unreasonable controls including illegal actions are the only outcome from following agreed processes of assessment and regulation.

Would the actions of a rogue individual who wilfully and illegally released a transgenic organism capable of control of (for example) feral possums be more or less reprehensible than the individual or individuals involved in the destruction of Scion’s field trials? Anything other than condemnation of such individuals in the strongest possible terms puts us in danger of a system best encapsulated by the adage that ‘one definition of fascism is regulation by those unable to achieve their desires by legitimate means.’

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