The odd political conference that embraces bipartisanship and facts
By Richard Harman (author)
The former Environment Minister, Nick Smith, was just one of a host of speakers at a National Party conference at the weekend calling for a debate on the relaxation of restrictions on introducing genetically edited plants into New Zealand.
Smith argued that if New Zealanders were to meet the challenges of climate change, then they needed to be able to use some of the new genetically edited plants such as the ryegrass being developed by New Zealand scientists which would absorb nitrates and thus reduce methane emissions to the atmosphere.
Genetically edited plants are currently included under the legislation which sets out a laborious process for the approval of genetically modified organisms.
The party's keynote panel discussion at its annual Blue Greens conference in Raglan was on biotechnology and featured the former Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, Sir Peter Gluckman.
He wants a debate on genetic editing to begin now.
Gluckman said he could not see a way that agriculture in New Zealand would be sustainable in the long run without using gene editing.
He said gene editing, unlike genetic modification, did not change the gene structure, only the way the genes worked.
“Do we need gene editing?” he asked.
"Well, we certainly need to talk about it and have an adaptive approach to knowledge which has come from scientists all around the world to find whether it fits our needs.
“I’ll go as far as to say that I cannot see a way that agriculture in New Zealand will be sustainable over the long run in the face of environmental change and consumer preferences without using gene editing.
“There is no way that we will get a reduction in methane production, and I can see no way that we will see an economic advantage for farmers as we shift to more plant-based foods without using gene editing."
Gluckman was particularly referring to a ryegrass developed by New Zealand scientists using gene editing which produces a 25% reduction in methane emissions in cattle.
But because of New Zealand legislation, the grass is being trialed in the United States.
Gluckman has been pushing this view for some time now but what may have surprised many was that at the Blue Greens conference he got a degree of support from the former Green MP and now CEO of Forest and Bird, Kevin Hague.
“We think that biotech is a set of tools that has potential,” he said.
And he said he broadly agreed with Sir Peter that there should be a debate about that potential.
He did have some qualifications though.
"I absolutely think we should undertake research in this area and fully support the calls for a new conversation among New Zealanders about biotech because, as Sir Peters says, we need social licence to be able to proceed,” he said.
However, he said he didn't necessarily agree with the assertion that genetic modification techniques would be needed to achieve the predator-free goal of 2050.
"While I support research in this area and the conversation I am also wary of what I would describe as some of the starry-eyed boosterism that is surrounding the use of these techniques.”
He suggested that some people were promoting biotech techniques for other reasons: that they were promoting their application to pest control to achieve social licence for commercial applications.
“These are techniques that may be useful, but they are not a silver bullet," he said.
Even that limited amount of support takes the debate a lot further;
Only last week it was revealed that Hague’s former Green Party colleague, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage, had ordered Predator Free 2050 to not invest in research into genetically modified organisms and technologies such as gene editing.
National Leader, Simon Bridges, made only a passing reference to biotechnology in his speech launching the party's Environment discussion document at the conference.
Referring to Predator Free 2050 he said: “We take a different approach to this Government which has banned work on new biotechnologies.”
It is ironic that National has been stimulated into reviewing the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act which was originally passed by the Bolger Government in 1996 by its concerns about dairying being able to adapt to climate change targets.
What is interesting about National now is the degree to which it now not only accepts the Government’s net zero carbon goal of 2050 but its enthusiasm to develop a bipartisan approach to get there.
One speaker at the forum was John Carnegie, the executive director, climate change and infrastructure at BusinessNZ.
He emphasised that what business wanted was a policy that could be supported by both main parties so that there was certainty about the future.
“I’d like to encourage you to get your big boys and big girls pants on and get a deal done,” he said.
Nick Smith picked up the theme.
“I would say to my colleagues, look at the political mess across the Tasman over climate change policy that has resulted in five Prime Ministers effectively getting the chop,” he said.
His comments came during a session chaired by National's climate change spokesperson, Todd Muller.
“I would love this Blue Green forum, to give Simon (Bridges) and Todd (Muller) a clear message that our party is up to forming a bipartisan agreement on a climate change commission, and I would like a steer from you, Todd, of how optimistic you are that we can get that climate change legislation into a form on which National could take the very unusual step as an Opposition party to back it,” said Smith.
Bridge said he was quietly confident that he and Climate Change Minister, James Shaw, could get a deal done but he had a warning for the National Party.
“When you see the final legislation try not to see the singular thing that if you held the pen, you would not have put in,” he said.
“But instead helicopter back up and have a look at the principles that the National Party has stated here today and look for them to be echoed back to you.
National has five principles it believes should guide climate change policy:
- It should be science-based
- It should be technologically driven
- There should be long term incentives
- New Zealand’s response should be at the same pace as its global trading partners
- It should have a minimal economic impact.
“I would contend that if the principles sit in that framework, despite the fact that we might not agree with everything, that is a big step forward for this country if we can support it,” said Muller.
National’s whole approach to the environment is at odds with its approach to most other policy areas where it seeks to contest space with Labour and the government parties rather than reach consensus.
The Blue Greens Forum plays a big role in that. It is the only major party political conference which is completely open to the media; includes critics as well as supporters --- Greenpeace and Generation Zero both had representatives there --- and invites experts to participate alongside MPs and party members in its debates.
And environmental advocates within the party like Scott Simpson, Nick Smith and Todd Muller, are having an influence on the front bench.
Bridges told the conference that he wanted National to be trusted as much for its stewardship of the environment as it was for its management of the economy.