Monday, April 19, 2010

Legal bestiality

I don't usually comment on people's sexual activities. I don't really care what people do for their jollies, as long as they are all consenting adults. There are, in my opinion, more pressing matters to concern ourselves with. Bestiality, on the other hand, is almost by definition non-consensual. When I read that a young man had appeared in the Christchurch Youth Court accused of having sex with a donkey I was sure, if he was actually fornicating with it, that the donkey didn't give informed consent.

Still, as distasteful as I find the idea, I could not help reflecting on the imbalance in our legal system that prosecuted a young man for rogering a donkey on the Friday, and then gave legal sanction to the insertion of human DNA into goats, sheep and cows the following week. It seems that bestiality is illegal if you do it for fun, but not if you do it for profit. At least the donkey in Summervale Reserve was not being impregnated.

The decision by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) to approve AgResearch's application was predictable. Since the massive uproar over genetic engineering (GE) around the beginning of the century there has been a relentless grinding away at public concern by Government, Crown research institutions and the biotech companies. It began with the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering, which received over 10,000 submissions, mostly from ordinary New Zealanders, 92 percent of which were opposed to the use of GE. Nevertheless, the Commission chose to side with the commercial interests and recommend that we “proceed with caution”.

“Proceed with caution” is doublespeak for 'start slow to lull people into a false sense of security'. Governments use a similar tactic when they give offensive legislation a delayed start date, or use a staged roll-out. It relies on frog psychology. I've never actually put a frog into boiling water to check if it's true, but the urban myth says that a frog placed in boiling water will try to jump out, but put one into cold water and heat it until it's boiling and it will sit there until it becomes soup.

The Labour government followed the recommendation of the Royal Commission to give risk assessment of GE applications to ERMA. Bureaucratic quasi-legal bodies like ERMA have an unerring drive towards easy compromises – its the most risk-free stance to take. When confronted with an application in a highly polarised area like GE, they will always go for adding a few token conditions to placate the community while permitting the development to proceed. The RMA consent process tends to work in a very similar way. It is a good process for dealing with technical issues, but is incapable of dealing with matters of principle or ethics. The fact is most people just don't think scientists should be doing transgenic genetic engineering.

So when AgResearch put in an application that, in the words of Dr Judy Carman, of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research in her submsission to ERMA, was “asking for Carte Blanche to join almost every known DNA sequence known to man (and some that are not yet known) in almost any combination and to insert them into animals to produce any number of inadequately specified proteins” ERMA did not do the obvious thing and reject it outright. It is impossible to assess the risk of such a vague application. Instead ERMA took the only path it knows and approved the application with a few added conditions.

Although they claim that these conditions are stringent, this is somewhat of an exaggeration. They say they have limited the range of modifications and types of organisms, but the list of expressions, organisms and cell lines runs to 732 pages. None of their conditions inhibit what AgResearch is doing, but they do specify where the research must take place and what kinds of things that should have been in the application in the first place. ERMA also, bizarrely, seeks to placate tangata whenua by specifying that any human genes should not be from Maori or Polynesia people while failing to acknowledge the equally strong ethical, cultural and spiritual objections of Pakeha against crossing human and animal whakapapa.

Any resulting organisms can not be used for commercial purposes, but this is little comfort. When it comes to this kind of 'biopharming' research, many of the medical promises are purely speculative at this stage, although good propaganda. But it is all about softening us up. Pharmaceutical cows milk may not yet ready for the shop shelves, but it looks like PGG Wrightson and also Fonterra with AgResearch are getting ready to commercially launch genetically engineered pasture grasses. Otago University genetics researcher Jack Heinemann has consistently warned about the lack of good risk assessment with genetic engineering because, partly due to intellectual property rights issues, it is largely the profiteering company that does the safety checking. This has obvious disadvantages. It is of particular concern with pasture grasses because of their wide pollen dispersion and the potential for gene transfer to other species.

New Zealand farmers have up until now showed a high level of suspicion of GE and the promises made on its behalf. New Zealand citizens have also shown very clearly that we would be a GE free country if it was up to the people to decide. Since the official channels are so unresponsive to democracy, I have to wonder how long before someone tries to shoot those cows?

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