“Clean and Green” No More?

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — New Zealand is presently doing a slow death march towards open-field release of genetically engineered farm crops, dictated by a government that has relentlessly ignored every reasoned argument for retaining this country’s totally GE-free status. With all the subtlety of a rubbish compactor, a government made up of Christian fundamentalists and the tattered remnants of the Lange/Douglas regime that turned this country into an economic basket case in the ’80s, is forging ahead with legislation that will pave the way for the end of the present New Zealand-wide moratorium on GE crops on October 29.

It seems an absurd move to make at the present time for a nation which destroyed its local industrial base with market forces ideology in the 80s and is now almost totally dependent for its overseas earnings on the export of conventional or organic agricultural products to Northern Hemisphere markets which not only demand GE-free produce, but have already warned New Zealand that GE contamination of any sort is unacceptable.

To comprehend this apparent economic suicide by an almost totally farm-dependent country you have to understand the weird political mindsets that still rule in the only nation in the world to totally convert to Chicago School economic theories, a move that took New Zealand from its position among the top ten nations in the developed world in the sixties and seventies to its present position as a near economic basket case ranked among the worst performers in the OECD.

For nearly 20 years now, Kiwis (appropriately, perhaps, a flightless bird that digs for worms in the dark) have been asked, by a succession of politicians and a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting coalition governments, to wait for the light at the end of the tunnel promised by the original 1984 Lange/Douglas Labour Government, while experiencing huge social dislocation, dramatic drops in household income and spending power, huge increases in violent and property crime, and the disappearance of guaranteed employment and leisure time.

Regrettably we never seem to learn, having re-elected in the current minority Labour Government many of the very team — including Prime Minister Helen Clark — who instituted the disastrous “New Zealand Experiment” in the first place! Clark, it should be added, is a wholehearted supporter of genetic engineering and sees GE as another heady experiment/fire truck to chase, with all the glamour of Milton Friedman’s original ideas, plus the added incentive of getting back on side with a pro-GE White House after a 20-year stand-off caused by New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy.

It’s an undoubted fact that Helen Clark’s adamant position in favour of GE is also a reflection of the hubris and vanity afflicting her following her easy victory over National Party PM Jenny Shipley at the close of the 20th Century. Shipley’s “Matron Knows Best” condescension towards her many critics, coupled with her cabinet’s epic absence of competence in almost every area of administration, made a Clark-led Labour coalition victory inevitable, and ever since New Zealand’s current PM has ridden high on both Preferred Leader and citizen popularity polls.

That status may not last much longer, however. The manner in which the GE issue in New Zealand has caught the imagination of the thinking portion of the population has surprised even this critic, with grass roots opposition to GE spreading rapidly from professional bodies such as Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics and the talent-heavy Sustainability Council (including ex-national farmers’ head Sir Peter Elworthy and Hollywood star Sam Neill) to the high-profile Mothers Against Genetic Engineering (MADGE), which recently grabbed public attention by demonstrating in fluorescent pink bras in Parliament’s debating chamber.

As I was just about to post this story MADGE has shocked even wider debate — this time over the $26.4 million of public money voted towards GE research involving the insertion of human genes into cows — by bill-boarding and postering the main centres with the provocative image of a nude MADGE member with genetically engineered multiple breasts attached to a milking machine!

The Government’s case for GE hasn’t been helped by recent news that Denmark is moving to ban glyphosate/Roundup in agriculture due to residues of that chemical with its known cancer link now being present in that nation’s artesian water supply. Many NZ communities draw their water from aquifers where glyphosate and other leaching pesticides are popular and tests in the early ’90s indicated pesticide contamination in all the main underground water sources. Glyphosate resistance is, of course, the chief selling point in the proposed GE crops, including the recently proposed (by state quango Crop & Food Research) GE onions that NZ taxpayer money is funding, but the international evidence from more than eight years of glyphosate-resistant GE crops indicates that not only do weeds become resistant to it (and all the other favoured herbicides), but that all-round pesticide use actually increases rather than decreases, contradicting the main selling point for GE crops in the first place, i.e. low pesticide use.

So Helen Clark is buying into a fight that is going to cost her dearly. We’ve already seen Auckland’s main street packed end to end with over 50,000 demonstrators against GE — something that hasn’t been seen in New Zealand since the unemployment riots of the Great Depression. And, this week (October 11), further demonstrations with all the sophisticated Internet-savvy pre-planning of the Seattle and Genoa anti-WTO confrontations will be taking place in all the main centres on both islands and sending an even stronger message to the Clark Government that its rigid position in favour of GE is unacceptable. With even normally conservative opposition leaders like NZ First’s Winston Peters speaking out in favour of a further five-year moratorium on GE field releases, PM Clark and her unheeding cabinet would do well to start listening now, before they lose electoral confidence and deal a death blow to the last sector of the national economy that still makes real money for the country — agriculture, which, bolstered by a heavily promoted “Clean & Green” image based on conventional and organic production methods, contributes 75 percent of annual export earnings.

Realistically I can’t see her listening at this point, however. She and her fussy ex-school ma’am Environment Minister Marian Hobbs dig themselves deeper and deeper into a rigid biotech defence position week by week as October 29 approaches, making it almost impossible for any compromise to be reached at this point without the loss of considerable political “face”. More to the point, they have all been caught out lying over the “accidental” releases of GE contaminated corn at field sites up and down both North and South Islands and the suspicion amongst all of us with any insight into on-farm matters is that the GE corn release in 2000 (and possibly both earlier and later), far from being “accidental” was deliberately and carefully planned by the biotech corporates in North America who supplied the seed in the first place.

This, of course, is the inevitable conclusion you will come to if you read Kiwi GE activist Nicky Hager’s revealing book, Seeds of Distrust, on the whole GE corn debacle that led up to the 2002 NZ parliamentary election. Over the past two months as the official investigation into some of the book’s claims has limped to an end (earnestly, but incompetently covered up by Labour PR flakes) it is quite clear that the Labour Party deliberately lied and tried to hide evidence of a GE release and then played dirty politics with the naïve Greens, effectively smearing them as treacherous trouble-makers in the electorate’s eyes.

This cost the Greens party votes under the new MMP voting system and their place in a coalition Government and heralded in a Labour/Christian Democrat alliance notable for its lickspittle compliance with Helen Clark’s every whim. Notable also for some particularly silly pieces of legislation like the poorly executed farm “Fart Tax”, which have clogged the Parliamentary process for the past year while more vital issues are ignored. These ignored issues include New Zealand’s recent UN world ranking third place for child murders and child abuse and the huge increase in drug-related crimes, which an under-staffed police force seem unable to stop — all, one should add, an inevitable part of the rot that entered NZ society in 1984.

Are New Zealand farmers aware of the implications in taking on GE crops that North American farmers have already proved cost more, yield less and lose them export markets?

Not really. Farmers I’ve spoken to all up and down New Zealand are almost totally ignorant of the true state of affairs out on the prairies of North America. Despite the vital importance of such information at this point in time, none of them were aware that even the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has stated categorically that it can find no advantages to US farmers in growing GE crops and, furthermore, cannot explain farmers’ earlier ready acceptance of biotech industry promises.

The reason for this ignorance is not hard to find. The New Zealand farm press, these days largely owned by bean counters in Australia and heavily reliant on chemical/biotech industry advertising, criminally neglects the whole issue of GE failures and only grudgingly mentions organic agriculture despite the geometric growth of NZ organic exports over the past five years. A recent survey conducted by the South Island’s Lincoln University found that the majority of Kiwi farmers surveyed were still sitting on the fence over the whole GE issue. More to the point, the Clark Government has just voted a further $80 million to biotech experiments, which includes the sum mentioned earlier for the human genes-into-cows absurdity.

Typically, any GE research application over the past five years has received millions in taxpayer dollars and farmers have been misled at every turn by biotech interests and politicians alike into thinking that GE is the wave of the future for farming. Government investment in biotech, after all, proves the point. Organic agriculture only received $300,000 from government in the same period! In fact organic agriculture, the only agricultural area in New Zealand showing huge growth and the only sector of the international produce market facing an insatiable demand is, by contrast, almost completely ignored in the very country which could most successfully link it to New Zealand’s existing “Clean & Green” mythology. Unfortunately a general lack of political savvy in the NZ organics movement doesn’t help matters, but that’s another story.

The general apathy demonstrated by New Zealand’s ruling Federated Farmers towards key GE issues is not, of course, shared by their cousins across the Tasman Sea, who have effectively obtained state-wide bans on GE crops everywhere but in Queensland and the Northern Territory. As much as anything else, this is probably a reflection of the fact that Aussie farmers are a lot better served by both their farmer organisations, their rural media and their state political machines.

New Zealand farmers should have made careful note of the negative reaction of Japanese importers to last June’s discovery that a NZ sweet corn shipment was contaminated with GE corn. But they all seem to have been asleep at the wheel when the news came through. Japan and the European Union, our other major customer for non-GE farm produce, told New Zealand years ago that their consumers wanted only guaranteed non-GE produce and this country with its narrow agricultural littorals and steady winds is probably the worst location in the world for maintaining segregation zones between organic and conventional crops and their GE equivalents. We simply cannot guarantee GE-free status of a conventional or organic crop once we permit planting of its GE equivalent. Wind-blown GE pollen and seed dispersal is even more likely in NZ than on the prairies of North America where it has already made the growing of organic or conventional canola and — probably, ultimately — corn and soya, impossible.

But it’s a comment on a national malaise that has bewildered overseas visitors whenever they come up against it — a dumb evasion of intellectually demanding issues coupled to grovelling acceptance of undemocratic Government diktats — that best explains why New Zealanders will ultimately let Helen Clark have her way and see this country totally cave in to corporate biotech demands for open-slather GE planting.

I’d like to think it could be different, but 40 years of activism on social and environmental issues tells me that New Zealand politicians in particular never learn and the colonial cringe that sees us always bend eventually to North American corporate-led paternalism will see our “Clean & Green” mythology crumble into the dust where it probably belongs.

When all is said and done, the reality at an agricultural level in New Zealand has been that we readily embraced chemical farming, including the most carcinogenic pesticides (and their consequences!), when American corporates offered it to us once before and we will do the same thing again — unquestioningly — now that those same corporates are offering us GE crops. Unfortunately for commonsense, as well as intelligence, there is neither the political will nor the support from the bulk of New Zealand’s conservative farming community to do anything else.

Chris Wheeler is the former head of New Zealand’s foremost organic farm lobbying group, the Soil and Health Association.

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