Fbae Logo
Home | | Support Us | Contact Us
Goals & Objectives Our Position False Propaganda Special Topics Important Publications Important Links Events news Biosafety
Fbae Header Home



MARCH 2009



New Zealand: How Fears Turned To Trust
-- Chris Barton, New Zealand Herald, Nov, 29, 2008 http://www.nzherald.co.nz/ via Agnet

Christian Walter has heard it all before. "I've been accused of being in the pocket of Monsanto and other companies that have an interest in GE. I consider myself an environmentalist. I want to understand what the risks are and how they can be mitigated. I've no commercial interests. I put the data from my research in front of the people at this conference, in front of GE Free NZ and anyone who is interested. I want to be judged and trusted on my research which is publicly funded."

The senior scientist at Scion is responding to a press release from GE Free NZ saying many of the speakers at the GM Biosafety Symposium in Wellington a week ago were scientists "with vested interests in promoting the hasty commercialisation of GMOs for private gain".

For Walter it's an insulting statement that fails to understand how science works. He says he got into genetic modification research doing a PhD in Germany when he was still a member of Greenpeace and at the time very critical of the field.

"The more I learned, the more I found the risks weren't as big as some people wanted us to believe." He says it was the realisation that what occurs in conven tional breeding is much more dangerous to the genome compared to genetic engineering, that changed his view.

Walter came to New Zealand 16 years ago and set up Scion's GM system for pine trees. The first application by the crown research institute to Erma for a field trial was in 1999. It involved pine trees with the insertion of genes that report the reproductive development of the tree. Walter estimates, taking into account staff and lawyers' time and the Erma fee, that application cost about $450,000.

He says a more streamlined Erma process means costs have since improved, but applications are still very expensive and time-consuming. The first stage of Scion's 20-year trial ended recently when 9-year-old trees were felled. The research to date indicates no impact of the GM trees on insects and micro-organisms in the soil.
The next stage of the project involves putting key traits - such as easier pulpability, higher stability of timber and higher density - into the trees.

Walter says though the science of GM has evolved, the HSNO Act that regulates its use here hasn't. He would like to see a more evidence-based approach taken so that decisions are made on evidence of risk and benefit. "There is no such thing as zero risk so when we look at new activity such as genetic engineering we need to compare it to already accepted activity to achieve the same goal."

Walter says if we weigh up, for example, the risks of spraying pesticides against growing GM pest-resistant plants, the GM option presents less risk. Walter says he makes every effort to be open about his research, but it's a two-way process.

In January this year anti-GM activists dug under the electrified 3m-high fence surrounding Scion's field test site and destroyed an experiment by cutting down 19 trees. "We have a very open policy and we try to talk to everybody who is concerned about our research," says Walter. "We have to find other ways to deal with that particular problem, and unfortunately it prevents us from being open. The trust was broken - it was broken again when they destroyed my trees."