The National GE Debate

Prof Peter Shepherd 

I attended what was described as the national GE debate in Queenstown on Thursday evening. It was part of the Queenstown Research Week, and attracted a large audience. It wasn't a balanced debate and I thought it had been organised in a way that favoured the GE industry.

The affirmative GE team was an all male one and consisted of the Federated Farmers President, Dr William Rolleston, who is also a founding shareholder and director of South Pacific Sera (an agricultural business dealing with cell culture and microbiology); Prof Peter Shepherd, a scientist from the University of Auckland and Maurice Wilkins Centre who uses GE in his research; and Dr Will Barker, CEO of NZ Bio.

The negative team was all female and included Claire Bleakley, president of GE Free NZ; Dr Elizabeth Harris a remote rural GP and representative of the Physicians and Scientists for Global responsibility; and Philippa Jamieson, Editor of Organic NZ magazine.

It appears that the wording of the moot was changed at the last minute. It was stated on the website as "Genetic Engineering: what and who is it good for?", but on the night it had become something like "Is there a future for GE in New Zealand?" The negative team were told of the change but it made it more difficult to prepare their argument.

I won't give a blow by blow account of the debate but Rolleston was obviously a skilled debater and he opened the debate for his side by providing the team's definition of the topic as related to the potential of genetic modification in its broadest sense. He expressed the concern that emotional and ill-informed opposition was limiting the ability for scientists to achieve medical and other discoveries that could benefit New Zealand.

I thought Shepherd had a very emotional manner (for a scientist), angrily raising his voice when responding to questions and rolling his eyes and holding his head in his hands when the opposition spoke. He went to some lengths to establish his scientific credentials and expressed some exasperation that those who criticised scientists involved in GE kept repeating claims that had been debunked and had no substance. This was especially in reference to Seralini's research that dominated Claire Bleakley's opening (which utilised his shocking images of tumor ridden rats). Seralini's research is described as the 'Seralini Affair' in Wikipedia because of its polarising effect on the scientific community. His supporters claim it is industry scientists who have attacked the research for its poor methods and inconclusive findings while a number of peer reviews have supported it.

Shepherd made a point of drawing a line in the sand as he explained that protesters were easy to identify: those who are against the manipulation of genetic material call it Genetic Engineering (GE) while those in the field call it the softer Genetic modification (GM). He also explained how those who oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement call it the TPPA while those supporters refer to the TPP (this was a clear political attempt at personifying the argument). Philippa Jamieson made the excellent point that genetic modification could be achieved through natural means, while genetic engineering described deliberate modifications in a laboratory or industrial setting.

Shepherd also likened those opposed to GE to climate deniers. He claimed that after 25 years of peer reviewed science GE could be described as perfectly safe. He suggested that we are all eating GE food in our diets and much of the clothes we wear come from GE cotton. He added disingenuously that there are no two headed people running around as a result and people now live longer than we ever have before. Dr Harris responded that the latter was not true as it appears that current generations may not live as long as their parents. Diabetes, food allergies and cancers are impacting on people in developed countries with greater frequency.

I questioned Shepherd on the dishonesty of comparing climate science with GE science at the end of the debate. Climate science has a history that is longer than 100 years, involves thousands of scientists all over the world and has achieved a consensus of opinion for over 30 years. GE science on the other hand is largely industry based (especially regarding food), with few truly independent reviews and 25 years may not be enough time to reveal underlying issues. DDT was first synthesized in 1874, was in common use around the world by the 1940s. Rachael Carson exposed the negative impact of DDT on the environment and people in her book 'Silent Spring' in 1962 and despite the growing scientific evidence of its harmful effects it was still being used by many countries well into the 80s. India and North Korea may still use it. I don't find Shepherd's 25 years of largely industry based science very reassuring and his response to my question involved condescendingly telling me that I didn't understand science.

Rolleston and his team had cleverly shifted the GE debate, for their argument, away from the food issues to the potential medical benefits and tried to claim that total opposition to GE was not logical. The negative team focused their energies on the effects of GE food production and the poisonous culture around it. Most GE crops are engineered to be herbicide resistant and Monsanto has lead a revolution in monoculture chemical based farming. The use of the herbicide Roundup to kill competing plants and supporting pesticides has led to easier management for farmers but has resulted in a decline in soil quality, a development of herbicide resistant superweeds and many beneficial pollinating insects like bees are disappearing around the world.

The growing rates of cancer and food allergies in children and connections to our industrial approach to growing and manufacturing food was covered by Dr Harris and she especially emphasised the need apply the Precautionary Principle with regards to GE foods.

Dr Barker had a more scholarly and less divisive approach to his presentation, and made a point of mentioning the Green Party in a positive way (tactical?), however he generally sat back and allowed Shepherd to play his attack dog role.

Jamieson held up copies of her Organic NZ magazine and painted a picture of an alternative world where naturally grown food is dominant and we reject industrial monocultural approaches to food production. She also promoted the trade benefits of a GE free agricultural sector and the growing demand for naturally grown food around the world. Jamieson warned of the economic danger of losing our GE free status.

The opportunity for questions from the audience at the conclusion of the debate ended up with Shepherd still aggressively dominating responses.  Green MP Steffan Browning had to raise his voice to talk over Shepherds interjections as he described how the research of modified plants had been managed badly. A GE brassica field trial at Lincoln allowed plants to flower in violation of it's management agreement. HT Swedes were created using a process similar to GE to develop a tolerance to the herbicide Chlorsulfuron (banned in China). The swede was discovered to be responsible for killing 100s of cows and sheep but has been allowed to remain available with some warnings. I understand that the research to assess the safety of the swede has not been particularly extensive and it could still end up on roadside stalls for human consumption (although I told by someone who has tried to eat one that they are not very palatable). When Browning sat down Shepherd dismissed his credibility with a reference to his past support of homeopathy.

I couldn't help but feel that there was some political management of this debate and the presentation and debating style of the affirmative team appeared to be more political than scientific. The recent slipping in of GE into the Ministry of Primary Industries' newly developed Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry was supposed to have passed under the radar and it seems more than a coincidence that the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Allan Freeth, is an open advocate of GE. This reminds me of the appointment of Lesley Longstone to head the Ministry of Education. She had been head hunted from the UK and had a background in establishing Charter Schools, she started the job before the ACT Party's surprising inclusion of Charter Schools in their coalition agreement. GE here we come...

Postscript: Transgenic cow research branded a disaster.


robertguyton said…
I was surprised and disappointed by the emotional arguments used by Rolleston and Shepherd, particularly the latter's use of scaremongery, citing "people with 2 heads" etc. The 3 scientists seemed to willingly exclude all points that were other than strict science and mocked the opposing team and the audience for including the associated issue of pestide use in their comments. Shepherds "homeopathy" slight was childish and in any case, ignores the significant effects of placebo, a foolishness that wasn't lost on the MP, Dr Elizabeth Harris. The pro-GE team of scientists acted churlishly and in an arrogant manner, in my view.
robertguyton said…
Elizabeth Harris is a GP, not an MP but she'd be good value if she was :-)
bsprout said…
There is clearly a politcal agenda behind the scientists argument. I have suggested elsewhere that could could set up our own 'national debate' on the topic and this has received some support.

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