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Spiritual, cultural and ethical issues in genetic modification

The science of genetic modification has opened up new knowledge about medicine, environmental management and food production. However, this is a controversial area of science. Some people argue that it would be unethical not to use the tools genetic science has provided us, but to others this ability to move genes around is unnatural.

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification recognised the significance of the cultural, ethical and spiritual aspects of biotechnology in general. It suggested that Toi te Taiao: The Bioethics Council be established to provide advice and promote ongoing dialogue among New Zealanders on the issues. The Government agreed with this approach and the Council was established in December 2003.

The Bioethics Council's role is to promote public dialogue on issues in current and future biotechnology research and development that have significant cultural, ethical and spiritual dimensions. It is to use the results of that dialogue as a basis for its advice to Government. Government departments may draw on the Bioethics Council's advice in developing policies on biotechnology. The Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) can take the findings of the Bioethics Council into account when making its decisions (for more information, see Getting approval to use genetically modified organisms in research).

The Royal Commissioners also recommended that the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996 be amended to give effect to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. As a result, the legislation has been amended to give greater recognition to the knowledge and experience of Māori values by those involved in the decision making process on new organisms, including genetically modified organisms. It does this by adding knowledge of the Treaty of Waitangi and tikanga Māori to the range of expertise and experience the Minister considers when appointing members to the Authority.

As well, Ngā Kaihautū Tikanga Taiao (the body that advises ERMA on Māori issues) is given a statutory basis within the Act. Previously there was no requirement in law for the Authority to have a Māori advisory committee. Now this has been changed to make it mandatory.

The Government is also encouraging a series of initiatives aimed at establishing better lines of communication between MĂori and potential applicants for new organisms research. These include initiatives to improve the engagement of Māori early on in the development of research programmes that may lead to an application to ERMA, and extending work already underway on developing a network of Māori representatives on the Institutional Biological Safety Committees.

Protection of taonga

When applications for the release of genetically modified organisms in New Zealand are considered by ERMA, the HSNO Act requires the Authority to take into account the relationship Māori and their culture and traditions have with their ancestral lands, water, sites, wāhi tapu, flora and fauna and other taonga. This means that ERMA must assess the potential impact of the organism on indigenous plants and animals - as well as introduced ones - that are valued by iwi and hapu. In doing so, it draws on the expertise of Nga Kāihautū Tikanga Taiao. Māori members of Institutional Biological Safety Committees have a similar role in decision making on applications that meet the low-risk criteria of the Act.

The HSNO Act also requires that ERMA consider the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi when making decisions on applications.