Sunday, 26 November 2017

GMO Regulation in NZ

Another month, another call to significantly relax GMO regulation in New Zealand, this time from Grant Jacobs over at sciblogs. Grant briefly lists 13 "ideas". Many are unsupported assertions about how we (NZ) should behave. Lots of ground is covered quickly.

I want to pick up on two issues: diversity & inclusiveness.

Grant recognises "many different types of applications" of GM which relies on the ability to "read genomes" and use one of several "editing technologies". This diversity of applications is one of the reasons I've been describing GM as resembling a general purpose technology (GPT). 

Diversity is also why case-by-case risk assessments are needed. One example: risks associated with outdoor release of a GM plant that could breed with other plants are different to those for a medical application where such inter-breeding could not occur. Not that outbreeding is the only concern, nor plants: Grant is also seeking the removal of regulation on GMO animals, insects, fungi & bacteria. 

While recognising this incredible diversity, Grant also suggests that "legislation targeting GM varieties could be removed". So the plan is: never assess things that haven't been invented yet, provided they're GMO's? This is bonkers. I trust the relevant authorities will require a sturdy bridge before accepting Grant's invitation to cross the logical chasm.

Grant says that "few problems are science-based ones". Don't get excited though: that's not an admission that scientists should listen to non-scientists. On the contrary, Grant's saying that concerned non-scientists are stupid.

It all starts with the name: GMO is a liability because "people have different ideas about what it means, and it carries emotive baggage". Then we're told that concerns about transgenesis only exist because people are thick, or as Grant puts it these concerns are "culture-based, not science-based. This wants education, not regulation". Oh, and we shouldn't "conflate big business practices and crop safety" or "worry about 'unexpected risks' from using GE" or be "negative" or "defensive"

If you listen in to conversations between practitioners of science communication (e.g. #scicomm on twitter), you'll pick up a lot of frustration about why the messages aren't getting through. Grant seems to think it's because we all just need more lecturing while the business side of things gets on with the job.

I'm all for education and outreach by scientists. We can learn a lot by reading and listening to objective scientists. I certainly have. But GMO science is not the only discipline that should inform decisions on the regulation of GMOs. 

We live in a democratic society: our laws and institutions reflect social views, albeit in imperfect ways. We don't let telcos set telco policy, we don't let bankers design financial regulation and we shouldn't let GMO producers set GMO policy. Industry input and insight is useful in all these cases, but it needs to be moderated by other professions. 

Otherwise, we'll end up with people like Grant doing the policy economics, like this...
  • "GE varieties do not endanger organic farming. Allow both. The diversity may mitigate market risks". Sure it's just an idea. It's also wild speculation about market issues on which Grant has no expertise to my knowledge. 
  • "Regulations always conflict with other nation’s rules. Create opportunities for NZ; worry about other nations later". Crikey. Where to start. He's not destined for the diplomatic service is he? We have signed up to a lot of international agreements and are members in good standing of the international community. Also, trade.
By the way, the regulator, whose decisions Grant is hoping to influence with his bush-economics, has recently taken off on its own undocumented excellent adventure into economics.

Disciplinary imperialism is a real worry here. These issues are far too important to be controlled by the vested interests.

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