Assessing the Spiritual, Ethical and Political Aspects of Genetic Modification

A Keynote address to Sea of Faith Conference, Timaru, NZ, 20 September 2002 by Bishop Richard Randerson, Dean of Auckland and a Member the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, New Zealand 2000-01

The mandate delivered to the four members of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (RCGM) directed them to recommend "strategic options" for New Zealand with regard to GM, taking into account a variety of matters, one of which was ethics. The formal submissions received from the 116 parties accorded "Interested Person" (IP) status at commission hearings were very light in terms of ethics. The box on the template was often left empty, or contained vague statements like "we always seek to act in an ethical manner". I did not conclude from this that the IPs were unethical, but rather that ethics was a topic they were ill-equipped to handle.

Some organisations, companies or researchers tabled their corporate codes of ethics. These contained important operating principles such as compliance with regulatory codes, confidentiality of patient information and the like, but left unaddressed more macro questions such as the ethics of moving genes from one species to another, or how to address issues of Maori spirituality. There was a widespread desire on the part of IPs for guidelines on these larger ethical issues, and the Commission included in its recommendations to Government a proposal to establish a Bioethics Council in New Zealand. (The Government has subsequently' established such a council under the leadership of Sir Paul Reeves).

Ethical principles derive from the values we hold or, in the case of a nation, from national values. In the absence of stated values there is no guarantee a nation will achieve desirable policy outcomes. This was particularly apparent to me during the period of economic restructuring in New Zealand from 1985-99. The nation went overboard on such things as enterprise, privatisation, flexible employment, market outcomes, deregulation and the like. These became our national goals, but yet they are not goals - only means to an end. And when that end is not stated it is not surprising that it was not achieved. A desirable national end might be to achieve the well-being of all people, yet manifestly economic restructuring failed miserably in that regard. A small elite in society' made huge financial gains, but unemployment and poverty' to a degree not seen since the Depression were visited on the 25% at the bottom end of the spectrum.

It seemed to the Commission, therefore, that some statement of the values of New Zealanders was important as a guideline in the making of policy, whether it related to GM, socio-economic matters or any other national policy. But how are such values to be determined? Clearly it is not appropriate for four members of a royal commission to make a selection of national values. In a multi-cultural and multi-faith society, with a great diversity of secular and religious views, one might think identifying a common set of values to be an impossible task.

Yet in spite of such diversity, the Commission felt there were some core values which most New Zealanders seem to share. This core became apparent from what we heard from the 116 IPs, 15 public meetings around the country', 11 meetings on Maori marae. 11,000 written submissions from the public, and a youth forum. The values were also apparent in terms of the mandate we received from Government. The mandate indicated significant values by directing the commissioners to take into account such matters as who would be advantaged or disadvantaged by GM, the Treaty of Waitangi, health, environment, culture and ethics. The commission was bold enough to distil from this welter of submissions what seemed to us to be seven core values, and we named them upfront on our report (chapter 2, see Appendix). They are a mix of global, economic, environmental, human, cultural and democratic priorities. We grouped these seven values into three sets of criteria to assist us in assessing GM products and processes (see Appendix B [in the original report].)

This exercise is important not merely in indicating a set of goals for a nation to aim at, but also in identifying a consensus point between the wide variety of views held in a modem democratic nation. On page 17 of our report we set out the different traditions from which the values inherent in what we heard seemed to be sourced. We named Maori culture, religious belief, a variety of environmental viewpoints which we termed eco-spirituality, and a general category of other cultures and beliefs. An important ingredient, in working collaboratively in a diverse society is the identifying of a shared platform for common endeavour without diminishing our own convictions, or losing respect for the convictions of others.

But values alone can be airy-fairy if not applied to real life complexities. Dr William Rolleston will, I understand, be making the point later that unless ethics are developed within the context of hard scientific data, they are of not much use to us. I agree entirely. After all, who could disagree with such values as eco-sustainability, or the well-being of all people. The hard part is working out what such things mean in practice, particularly when competing values have to be balanced, or when one cannot predict precisely what the economic, scientific or environmental outcomes of some course of action might be.

There are no easy answers to ethical dilemmas. As the chart on page 38 of the Commission's report indicates, ethical decisions emerge from the interaction of a given proposal (situational context) with core values. Either set of considerations alone is insufficient. Values alone, as noted, can be airy-fairy and of no practical help. But considering the situational context without reference to core values leads individuals, corporations or the nation to a situation where an outcome fails to meet basic criteria such as environmental or human well-being. Such an outcome might not be the result of a direct choice, but rather arises from the neglect of the ultimate goals and values to be achieved. I often think evil in life and society is a process of unconscious drift rather than deliberate intent.

The Commission had a brief discussion with one witness on different ethical approaches such as deontology (an approach based on principles) or utilitarianism (achieving the greatest good for the greatest number). But ultimately utilitarianism depends on measuring the greatest good in the light of principles and context, and deontology requires examining principles in specific contexts. We only heard one witness who affirmed she would never give way on her principle of opposition to GM, even if a GM remedy was the only option to save the life of a dying daughter. I doubt if any of us believed her, quite apart from the fact that opposition to GM scarcely qualifies as a principle in its own right, but is rather a conclusion one might reach as a result of considering basic values such as eco-sustainability or human health.

The term "situational ethics" is now about 40 years old, and has had a bad press in conservative circles because it is misconstrued as abandoning principles in order to adopt the latest fad or self-indulgence. Such a view is not sustainable insofar as ethics removed from real life situations have no working value. The Commission's view may be correctly described as situational ethics, not because it made an advance selection of that ethical process, but because the process it saw as appropriate to an ethical consideration of GM exemplified the situational approach. A full discussion is contained in chapter 3 of our report. As a working example we took the case of transgenic animals, as noted in Appendix D [in the Report].

The Commission was also charged to address the implications of the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 between Queen Victoria and a large number of Maori chiefs in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The Treaty has three articles. Under the first, Maori concede kawanatanga (governorship) to the Queen. Under the second, the Queen guarantees to Maori rangatiratanga (chieftainship) over their lands, fisheries and forests. The third extends full British citizenship to Maori.

There is continuing debate about the relationship between kawanatanga and rangatiratanga. Some regard them as equal and parallel jurisdictions, concluding that New Zealand should have two governments side by side. Others regard kawanatanga as the over-riding jurisdiction to which all are subject, while rangatiratanga is a delegated jurisdiction in specific areas (eg Maori health or education). Most would agree. however, that authentic consultation between Maori and the Crown is an essential principle of the Treaty.

But what is the nature of such consultation? All too often in the past and present, consultation with Maori has been a token ritual after which the Crown has done whatever it likes, usually ignoring Maori interests. At the other end of the spectrum, some have held the view that unless the Crown does whatever Maori request, there has not been true consultation. Somewhere between these extremes there must lie a process of genuine consultation which leads to an optimum mix of the concerns of different parties, even if such an outcome does not reflect the initial recommendation of either party.

A good example of this was in the appeal made by Ngati Wairere, a Waikato tribe, against the decision of the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) to allow a transgenic experiment with human proteins in cow's milk at Ruakura. Ngati Wairere claimed before ERMA that any transgenic experiment was spiritually offensive to Maori. ERMA approved the experiment nonetheless, whereupon an appeal was made to the High Court that ERMA had not adequately consulted Maori as it was required to do under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act of 1996. The High Court ruled that the consultation process had been properly followed, even although the view of Ngati Wairere had not been upheld. (The appeal was upheld on another matter, however, requiring ERMA to rework its processes).

The HSNO Act established ERMA as the regulatory body to process all applications for importation, creation or use of hazardous substances and new organisms, including GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The criteria ERMA is directed to consider are wide-ranging, and in fact parallel several of the values the Commission identified [see Appendix]. Fundamental principles are the "safeguarding of the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil and eco-systems", and the "capacity of people and communities to provide for their own economic, social and cultural wellbeing and for the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations".

ERMA is further directed to take into account "the sustainability of native and valued flora and fauna the intrinsic value of ecosystems, public health, the relationship of Maori ... with their ancestral lands, water, sites ..., economic and related benefits, international obligations, and the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi". Detailed methodologies for making such assessments are appended to the Act. The Commission formed the view based on presentations made that the HSNO Act and ERMA processes were thorough and robust.

In assessing the evidence about GM presented to it, the Commission concluded that not enough was yet known about the safety of GMOs in the environment, nor future consumer and market demands re GM products, for a clear recommendation to be made about the open release of GM products in New Zealand. It therefore recommended that the best strategic option was to "preserve opportunities", which meant no release of GMOs into the open environment until we know the answers to basic questions of safety and future markets.

Environmentalists are correct in saying we do not yet know enough for GM crops to be safely released into the environment at this stage. We need to know more about horizontal gene transfer from GM plants into the soil. The environmental impact of plants genetically modified with the Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) insecticide requires further study. Research is needed on the risks of out-crossing between GM plants and non-GM plants in the New Zealand environment.

With regard to markets, evidence presented showed a growing desire on the part of consumers, both overseas and domestically, to avoid GM food and to seek organic or other GM-free food products. There has been a marked increase in organic production in New Zealand, albeit from a low base (0.26% of merchandise exports in 2000). New Zealand's "clean green" image is also a significant marketing advantage in export sales and tourism.

The Commission saw the importance of maintaining organic and other environmentally friendly forms of agriculture. It recommended the allocation of research funding to ensure that such agricultural options were sustained. On the other side of the ledger is the reality that no one can predict future markets. The trend away from GM foods might continue, in which case it would be poor strategy to have sidelined GM-free agriculture. But if GM-free preferences are not sustained, our export strategy would be in poor shape if we have not kept up with developments in GM. Our knowledge economy would take a bad hit. Potential environmental advantages from GM, such as new crop varieties requiring a reduced application of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, would also be lost.

Faced with such unpredictability the Commission saw it as important to "preserve opportunities" in order to remain open to the advantages of all forms of agriculture (see Appendix E [in the Report]). As market trends evolve, production can move to meet market demand. Tegel Foods recently announced it would source all its chicken-feed from non-GM sources. Some supermarket chains in Europe have gone GM-free to meet consumer demands. The "preserving opportunities" strategy allows New Zealand producers to follow such trends. The same strategy also allows for GM products to develop in line with market signals.

The trickiest question the Commission faced was whether h is possible for GM and non-GM crops to co-exist. Sterility technologies were one option recommended by the Commission to prevent out-crossing. Another lay in separation distances between crops. A GM-free New Zealand is the best defence against GM, but is not a co-existence strategy. It comes at the expense of GM opportunities. Buffer zones are a local approach, with separation distances varying according to the out-crossing potential of different crops. Such a system has a precedent in existing separation standards for the certification of pure seed for agricultural production.

A final protection lies in the requirement for ERMA (in terms of the HSNO Act s.6e) to take into account economic criteria in deciding whether or not to permit the use of a GM crop. ERMA has the capacity to prohibit the release of GM crops where economic losses would outweigh benefits. The Commission recommended that this provision be used by ERMA to prohibit the release of GM crops which would put at risk the existence of established GM-free production systems.

As one who worked day and night on the Commission for the best part of a year, I was disappointed with the poor media coverage accorded to our four-volume report. A few dot-pointed and inadequate summaries at the beginning quickly gave way to adversarial sloganeering by various parties. There was slippage in the public debate from a correct position that "we do not yet know GM is safe (and therefore should be tested further)" to an incorrect position "we know it is unsafe (and therefore should be banned)".

If the current moratorium on the open release of GMOs into the environment is lifted after October 2003, a GMO will only be released into the environment if it meets all the stringent criteria laid down under the HSNO Act, as outlined above.

The HSNO Act, with its wide-ranging criteria of environmental, economic, social and cultural wellbeing, is a piece of legislation which encapsulates many of the spiritual, ethical and policy-related dimensions of the GM debate. The Commission's mandate included all such aspects, while its report indicated clearly the need to integrate these factors. Asking questions about a nation's goals and values does not lead to easy answers, but failure to ask the questions, or to develop adequate processes for handling them, will certainly lead to an outcome where the things that are of ultimate worth drop from view.

Appendix

Chapter 2: A shared framework of values

1. The choices we make in life, whether as individuals whether as a nation, reflect the values we hold. Values give rise to goals, which in turn determine policies and strategies. Values are often hidden or unnamed, and when this happens there is a danger of becoming lost in a debate about strategies and losing sight of what we ultimately want to achieve. In this chapter, therefore, the Commission sets out a framework of values as a reference device to guide the processes of analysis and formulation.

2. But where do those values come from? It would be inappropriate for four people to impose their own values on the life of the nation, and we do not seek to do so. But after weeks of hearings and our many public meetings and hui around New Zealand, it appears to us that it is possible to name a set of values that many New Zealanders would recognise as things we hold in common. The Warrant establishing the Commission also implied certain values by listing various matters we were to take into account in reaching our conclusions.

3. Sharing similar values, however, does not mean that everyone will necessarily reach the same conclusions about strategies to give effect to those values. Those who appeared before the Commission had very different ideas on how to achieve similar goals such as environmental, cultural and economic well-being. But value identification goes some way to ensure congruence between goals and strategies, and to enable different groups to see their own goals more broadly, and in relationship with others.

4. We identity seven values pertinent to this Report:

  1. The uniqueness of Aotearoa/New Zealand. The environment of any country is unique, and New Zealand's is made more so by its geographical isolation, its relatively low population density, and the ecosystem, flora and fauna specific to this nation. Decisions need to be tailor-made to fit those features and circumstances which are uniquely ours.

  2. The uniqueness of our cultural heritage. The Treaty of Waitangi created a special relationship between tangata whenua (people of the land) and tangata tiriti (the settlers who came later). New Zealanders recognise the essential element of Maori heritage in the New Zealand culture of today.

  3. Sustainabilty. The need to sustain our unique but fragile environment for generations yet to come was often and passionately mentioned by many. Tangata whenua use the word kaitiakitanga (stewardship) to describe the same concept. Any estimate of benefits and costs must include sustainability as a central criterion. An environment that is cherished and cared for is not just a survival mechanism; it is for many also a source of spiritual and cultural hope.

  4. Being part of a global family To be geographically isolated is not to be isolationist. New Zealanders are very much world citizens in terms of travel, trade, and partnerships of knowledge and endeavour. While safeguarding those things that are uniquely ours, we also share in global developments. We live in a creative partnership with other nations, being influenced by them and yet also having the capacity to exercise leadership among them.

  5. The well-being of all. Meeting the needs of all New Zealanders requires a robust economy with equally robust systems to ensure positive educational, health and social outcomes. Economic and social goal are not mutually exclusive. They are, in fact, symbiotic. A strong economy makes possible the provision of effective educational, health and social systems, and a population that has benefited from those systems contributes in tarn to a strong economy.

  6. Freedom of choice. As a nation of diverse peoples, ailtures and beliefs we need to recognise such plurality by allowing for maximum freedom of choice. Freedom to make my choice, however, also means allowing others the freedom to make theirs. In a democratic nation freedom in diversity requires a flexible and cooperative spirit to ensure that as far as possible everyone's freedoms are maintained.

  7. Participation. A democratic nation requires effective systems of consultation and shared decision-making. The Commission has sought to consult with as many New Zealanders as possible, and to value the viewpoint of "the average Kiwi" as much as the viewpoint of well-resourced organisations. National policies are most likely to succeed when they arise out of processes of participation, and we hope that this Report reflects this fundamental value.

5. We invite readers to compare their own values with those we have set out above and to keep them in mind as a backdrop to this Report.