Govt to review role of councils with GMOs

  • Nick Smith

The Government intends to review the appropriateness of councils being involved in regulating Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), prompted by advice over a liver cancer treatment trial in Auckland, Environment Minister Dr Nick Smith says.

“A trial for liver cancer vaccine Pexa-Vec is being conducted at Auckland Hospital which involves a GMO. The new Auckland Unitary Plan prohibits the release of any GMO and would not allow any such future medical treatments,” Dr Smith says.

“It does not make sense for local councils to duplicate the role of the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) in regulating the use of GMOs in New Zealand. The EPA has taken a very cautious approach, approving only two GMOs in 20 years – an equine flu vaccine and the Pexa-Vec trial.

“The problem with councils regulating in this area is that they do not have the technical expertise, resulting in regulations that have unintended consequences. The further problem is that there are no biosecurity controls between councils, so having different rules on what organisms are allowed in different districts becomes a nonsense.”

Councils proposing or with a prohibition on GMOs in their resource management plans are the Northland Regional Council, the Far North District Council, the Whangarei District Council and the Hastings District Council. The new Auckland Unitary Plan, subject to appeals by 15 September, also contains a provision banning GMOs.

The High Court this week ruled councils with a GMO prohibition in their resource management plan have jurisdiction under the Resource Management Act (RMA) to regulate their use. This had been regularly questioned because GMOs are regulated under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO).

“The advice on the Pexa-Vec trial at Auckland Hospital is that it would be prohibited under Auckland’s new plan. However, the RMA also provides for existing use rights and because the trial is already under way it can continue but could not be expanded. Any new programme involving another GMO treatment would also be prohibited in Auckland. I have been advised by the EPA that the use of GMOs in modern medicine is growing and that they expect further applications.

“I am seeking advice from the Ministry for the Environment on possible solutions. Options include changes in the law or regulations to clarify that approvals and controls on GMOs are to be determined by the EPA and not councils. Any changes that may flow from the advice will involve public consultation.”