GMO research and environmentally concerned New Zealanders

New Zealand is a small, sparsely populate, faraway place to most people. It evokes romanticised images of wild spaces and good people who sympathise with their natural habitat. Naturally, there have always been efforts to create a meaningful identity for our country that reflects this internationally and entices visitors.

‘Clean and Green’ or ‘100% pure’ have long been the slogans of this movement to showcase New Zealand’s unique condition and seemingly wild untouched expanses.

At a certain level New Zealand is relatively clean and green but as the effects of the intensification of industry catch up with us that image is becoming harder to maintain.

These ideas about New Zealand are largely built through tourism marketing campaigns with the goal of maintaining this image as perceived by international markets and customers. Kiwis should be concerned about maintaining this image as estimates put the losses at 530 to 900 million NZD if we lose it.

However, there appears to be little effort directed to the general improvement of natural resources and the rehabilitation of ecosystems and native biodiversity within New Zealand.

Image: Part of a protest march held in 2003 voicing opposition to GMO, in Auckland, New Zealand. By: Alan Liefting – Own work, Public Domain,

In a time of neo-liberal economics and policy, we often substitute real improvement with virtuous campaigns that centre around attractive attributes or ‘simple fixes’. These approaches are not likely to shake the status quo or enact meaningful change (for further reading see: Beyond ManaPouri: 50 years of Environmental Politics in New Zealand).

Despite New Zealanders having this image and our national parks being a huge contributor to both the clean green image and tourism, the Department of Conservation have still ended up in a position where they have looked to large corporations for funding due to budget cuts.

One aspect of clean and green is with minimising genetically modified organisms (GMO). The NZ Green party began an official campaign to ban GMOs with a petition that received 92,000 signatures, and was submitted to parliament in 1999, which was enough to initiate a 2 year moratorium on GMO release applications. A royal commission of Genetic modification was established in 2000 and came to the conclusion that some GMO research should always happen to preserve opportunities. It also found that GMO technology was of no threat to our ‘clean green image ‘and therefore suggested keeping it well regulated. The moratorium was ceased after the initial two year period.

This result of this inquiry did not satisfy every concerned group, notably the Green Gloves pledge signed by 3,000 New Zealanders that promised  “To take non-violent but direct action to prevent the irreversible release of genetically engineered lifeforms into the New Zealand environment whether this is deemed illegal or not” and the Peoples Moratorium Enforcement Agency that even held a camp to train its members in physical actions against GMO research, along with proper containment measures for GMO organisms.

As New Zealanders it is essential for us to understand the meaning and implications of our movements and stances as we have potential to enact change through a small and mobile society. But clearly this passion can be hijacked and not necessarily intentionally. When the ‘ideascape’ is reduced to its simplest components (good vs bad, natural vs modern) it can be very easy for well-meaning people to have a negative impact, or them and their cause to be weakened by forces they are not aware of (This article about Latour and Foucaults ideas relating to discourse and scientific fact in the context of ‘back to nature farming’ provides more information on this issue)

Therefore, we should focus on the practical benefits and likely impacts for specific cases of GMO application. It is not enough to be a ‘good person’ anymore because our options and effects and are so diverse and the systems we are complicit in have impacts on many societal and environmental levels. People should be less ardent in their defense of one camp and instead recognise that the wider environment is a complex system that provides us many benefits and supports a lot of industries.

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Because most NZ agricultural landscapes are already so far from ‘natural’, especially in Canterbury where there is less than 0.5% of native forest cover remaining, it seems counter-productive to put all of one’s effort into banning the editing of genes when we could also be campaigning to improve the environment for both humans and native biodiversity.

Further research has identified applications for GMOs in New Zealand to hopefully redirect discourse towards actualised benefit and real world solutions. GMO technology could be used to control wilding pines, faster creation of cultivars for orchard species like apples or pears, and improve pasture quality. If we want to truly preserve our ecosystems and vistas we could gain huge benefit through scientifically sound applications of technology rather than just rejecting new technology to no defined end.

While it is true that New Zealand doesn’t produce many of the typical GMO crops worldwide, such as soy bean and cotton etc., we can still gain a lot of benefits from allowing continued scientific research and regulated release of the modified organisms once they have passed precautionary assessments. In one sense it is great that New Zealanders readily act, and we have gained benefits from creating a GMO industry that strictly follows legislation. But we still have a lot to learn as far as creating a country in which the preservation of ecosystems has a meaningful stake in both the peoples and governments decision making.

Joel Faulkner is a postgraduate student in the Bachelor of Science (Honours) at Lincoln University. He wrote this article as part of his assessment for ECOL 608 Research Methods in Ecology.

Sarah Edwards. (2017) Research into Genetically Modified Organisms in New Zealand an Examination of a Sociotechinal Controversy. Department of Enviromental Management: :Lincoln University, (DOI:

Gene editing in New Zealand:

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