Northland and Auckland Councils Working Party remains undeterred

Statement from the Working Party Convenor, Kerry Grundy

Given the comments in the media concerning possible central government amendment of the Resource Management Act (RMA) to exclude a local government role in managing risks from GMOs, participating councils on the Inter-council Working Party on GMOs have agreed to make the following statement.

Under the current legislation, local government has jurisdiction to manage the risks from GMOs under the RMA in addition to national regulation under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO) provided that the requirements of the RMA are met. This has been set out in a legal opinion obtained by the Working Party from Dr Royden Somerville QC. It has also been confirmed by Ministers for the Environment in both the previous Labour led Government and the present National led Government. It has been further confirmed by Crown Law opinions. The former Minister for the Environment in the present Government, the Hon Nick Smith, wrote in a letter to the Working Party dated 5 August 2010:

The government’s position is that GMOs are most appropriately controlled by the Hazardous Substances and New Organism’s Act 1996 (HSNO Act)…. However, this does not preclude a council from restricting or preventing the use of GMOs in their region, provided that this action meets the relevant requirements of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).

Councils in Northland and Auckland (including Far North, Kaipara and Whangarei District Councils, Auckland Council and predecessor councils) in response to on-going concerns expressed by their communities including tangata whenua, have collaboratively investigated the risks posed by GMOs in the environment, together with options to manage those risks, over a period of ten years. They have also lobbied central government extensively to amend HSNO to address those risks, particularly by putting in place a strong mandatory precautionary requirement on decisions to trial or release GMOs to the environment, along with strict liability provisions for possible harm resulting from outdoor use of GMOs.

In response to the continued refusal by central government to address those concerns, the Working Party commissioned draft district/unitary plan provisions, a supporting section 32 evaluation and report, and accompanying legal opinions from Dr Somerville QC to enable councils on the Working Party to insert provisions in their RMA planning documents to manage the risks from outdoor use of GMOs. These provisions provide the following benefits to communities and councils in Northland and Auckland:

(a)   An assured, community determined level of risk at the local/regional level compared to lack of surety at the national level. The Northland/Auckland communities (as the ultimate risk bearers) have indicated that they want a strong precautionary approach to the risks from GMOs as opposed to HSNO’s weaker requirement for the EPA to consider the necessity for caution.

(b)   The avoidance of potential major financial exposure for constituents and councils from possible GM contamination and/or eradication or control of unwanted GMOs, whilst retaining opportunities to benefit from GMOs in the future should such opportunities arise.

(c)   A strict liability regime, including bond and financial fitness rules, that provides (to the extent possible) for users of GMOs to pay the cost of any damages (environmental and economic) resulting from that usage (which HSNO does not impose). Linked to this is a duty of care to existing conventional and organic farmers that their social and economic well being will not be adversely affected by the use of GMOs.

(d)   Local and regional marketing and branding advantages, based at least in part on the GE Free status of the area, in order to seek price premiums for agricultural production and underpin tourism activities. At present GM food products do not command a price premium – rather they can result in a reduction in price – in the global market.

(e)   A policy position that is representative of the strong cultural concerns of Maori in Northland and Auckland regarding GMOs indicated in iwi and hapu resource management and environmental documents and in other forums, including submissions from Maori on Northland/Auckland planning documents. Given the high proportion of Maori in the Northland/Auckland region, this is of greater significance than nationally.

As long as national regulation under HSNO fails to provide these assurances to councils and communities in Northland and Auckland the Working Party will continue to support regulation under the RMA to achieve such outcomes until (and if) the legislation is amended to prevent councils from doing so. If this should occur, other parties have indicated that they may rescind these amendments and amend HSNO to require the national regulator (EPA) to take into account local government controls on GMOs. When (and if) this occurs, councils on the Working Party will be in a position to continue the process of changing their planning documents to address the concerns of their constituents.

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