Previously known as Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics PSRGNZ - Charitable Trust
As required under the new 2005 Charities Act, PSGR has reregistered as a charitable trust.

30 January 2013


Mayor Len Brown, Auckland Councillors and Council Officers, Local Board Chairs and other community representatives


Independent scientific advice for a precautionary policy on and containment of genetically engineered organisms (also referred to as genetically modified organisms)

Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility is a Charitable Trust established to provide independent scientific assessment and advice on matters relating to genetic engineering and other associated scientific matters including nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

We write following previous correspondence to offer current scientific research findings on the above.  (N.B. in this letter we will use the term “genetic engineering”.)

We also reaffirm our recommendation for Council to maintain a strong precautionary policy in local and regional plans to prevent environmental damage from the release of genetically engineered organisms.


The risks to decision-making based on erroneous and/or misleading information

Representatives and Council Officers will be aware of the risks associated with accepting incomplete and sometimes inaccurate information being provided by sources that have a pecuniary interest in influencing Council's policies.  Furthermore, Councillors and Officers must be vigilant of industry sector submissions which fail to be transparent in acknowledging the financial and trade advantages that would accrue to them from adoption of the particular policy they advocate.

It is of concern to us that a recent presentation to Councillors and Officers attending the Economic Forum may have been misleading, and may result in errors of judgment and mistakes in policy that are harmful to ratepayers and the public interest, in failure of Council’s duty of care to the public.

A recent talk by Dr Elspeth MacRae from Scion Research dealt with aspects of genetic engineering in a way that is not supported by scientific research or by the observations of farmers and growers.  We are concerned that she chose to use reports or articles that had a pro-GE bias and presented them as fact.

Councillors and Officers may have been understandably misled by the information provided because of a lack of transparency and a lack of independent scientific studies to support Dr MacRae's statements.  We draw your attention to the following:

Dr MacRae spoke about the HSNO Act and said any local government legislation would be overridden by the Act.  The imminent report of an Inter-Council Working Group's Section 32 RMA analysis on options to control genetically engineered organisms is based on legal advice that this is not the case.  We recommend to Council to include a precautionary principle on genetically engineered organisms in wording for Unitary, Local and Regional plans.

Dr MacRae apparently made the assumption that people do not greatly care about the control of genetically engineered organisms in the field.  The fact that people do care about control of genetically engineered organisms in their local environment was amply determined in a 2009 Colmar Brunton Poll that included Auckland:

Dr MacRae said that biotechnology was the word now being used for genetic engineering, when in fact genetic engineering is only a small part of biotechnology.  Those who raise questions about applications of genetic engineering do not generally oppose biotechnology as a whole, as there are many important applications of non-GE biotechnology and many advances have been made to support and improve agriculture.

The application of genetic engineering technology alters the DNA of a living organism in a way that is inevitably disruptive to some degree as a result of the essentially random insertion of transgenic (or cisgenic) DNA into the functional DNA of a host organism.  This may cause noticeable changes in the appearance of the organism and/or differences in the biochemistry and physiology of the organism.  These changes are unpredictable and may result in the production of new proteins, often with some kind of toxic effect, within the transgenic organism.

Dr MacRae says we have been eating transgenic foods for some time.  Because Food Standards ANZ has approved 43 transgenic products does not necessarily mean we are ingesting them or that they have been adequately shown to be safe.  Independent safety assessments are not required and FSANZ mostly uses the safety data of the company developing and marketing the plant or plant food product.  Such companies would be unlikely to present data of experiments that could be interpreted as showing their transgenic products to be unsafe.  Scientists can shorten the length of a feeding experiment and alter the experimental design to suit the preferred outcome.  For example, if negative effects on rats start to become apparent at 45 days, the observation period can be shortened to 40 days when negative effects are not yet apparent.  This does not mean that the transgenic crop is safe.  It simply hides results from regulatory bodies and/or consumers.  It is the reason why independent testing is so important to the integrity of safety testing.

Most GE crops are produced for animal feed, but are not necessarily sold for direct human consumption.  For example, LY038, a transgenic crop approved for animal feed, has never been produced commercially for human consumption.  Dr MacRae needs to provide data on what volume of transgenic food and food crops are imported into New Zealand and what percentage find its way into our food.  Most would go in animal feed and processed foods.

Two of our largest and most important food producers, Heinz Watties and Goodman Fielder, have GE free policies.  This has been the case for a number of years.  Fonterra has said there is not enough support in New Zealand, or from overseas customers, to support the local production of food from genetically engineered sources.

Dr MacRae quotes the work of John Knight, Marketing Department, University of Otago.  This is not research into the food or environmental safety of transgenic crops, but merely considers a ‘marketing’ approach.  It is also potentially biased by ‘confusion marketing’ in failing to define genetic engineering, and for basing questions on a promised consumer-benefit (of reduced sprays on
transgenic food crops) that has proven not to be the case in real-world scenarios where herbicide sprays on transgenic food crops have increased (  Scientifically, it is not relevant and cannot be used as a defence to release genetically engineered organisms into our environment.  Dr Knight also claims that nuclear power plants and intensive feedlot farming would be fine for the New Zealand brand, which Councillors are urged to also consider with scepticism.

Dr MacRae said that the issue of liability and exposure of ratepayers to costs has been resolved.  It has not, especially as insurance companies will not cover the unknown slow and long-term risks involved.  The failed trial involving 3000 transgenic sheep at Whakamaru was not satisfactorily sanitized because of the financial collapse of the overseas company conducting it; neither has the site been monitored for ongoing contamination.  PSGR urged that samples be taken from the sheep for valuable scientific analyses before they were destroyed.  The financial collapse prevented this unique opportunity (supported by ex-Prime Minister, Jim Bolger) to obtain statistically significant data from a large cohort of transgenic animals.

Despite Dr MacRae’s claims to the contrary, drought-resistant transgenic crops have not been produced.  Deployed transgenic crops typically use more water than their conventional counterparts, as many conventional crop cultivars are bred for local conditions and can withstand drought because of their specific genetic make-up, illustrating the multi-factorial genetic character of the desirable qualities that farmers seek.  This is outlined in a 2009 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, ‘Failure to yield, evaluating the performance of genetically engineered crops’:

The claimed benefits to poor farmers of transgenic crops are not supported by accurate evidence.  Currently, the Supreme Court of India is considering the advice of a scientific expert panel for a ten-year moratorium on genetic engineering trials.  A large, comprehensive UN study (The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development or IAASTD) has shown that genetic engineering is not a solution to feeding the future population, and indeed transgenic crops can be a threat to food security.,English.pdf.

Dr MacRae spoke of a reduction in herbicide use since the introduction of transgenic crops.  Whilst this may have occurred initially in some instances, we now have the problem of herbicide-resistant ‘superweeds’ due to the over application of specific herbicides.  In some instances, weeds have become resistant to multiple herbicides.  Superweeds grow aggressively and out-compete transgenic crops in the field.  Currently, herbicide and pesticide use on transgenic crops has increased substantially in comparison with amounts used in conventional agriculture.

US farmers are using more hazardous pesticides to fight weeds and insects due largely to heavy adoption of genetically modified crop technologies that are sparking a rise of ‘superweeds’ and hard-to-kill insects, according to a newly released study.  Genetically engineered crops have led to an increase in overall pesticide use, by 404 million pounds from the time they were introduced in 1996 through 2011,” according to the report by Dr Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Centre for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.

Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied.  If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%.  The magnitude of increases in herbicide use on herbicide-resistant hectares has dwarfed the reduction in insecticide use on Bt crops over the past 16 years, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

This is supported in New Zealand by a recent item on TV3 News ‘the first superweeds in New Zealand’ which resulted from the over application of the herbicide, glyphosate:

Ryegrass (Lolium rigidum) is a problematic weed in Australia.  The first glyphosate-resistant weed in that country was annual ryegrass which emerged in 1996 (Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 2012).  Commercial herbicide-resistant cotton was first grown there in 1996 and may have contributed.  The Australian government has committed AUD$15.3 million over four years to establish a comprehensive National Weeds and Productivity Research Programme to reduce the impact of invasive plants.  As an example, wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum) costs the grains industry AUD$140 million/p.a. for weed control and in lost production.

Dr MacRae made no analysis of the risk of pinus radiata becoming a superweed or the costs of clean-up from any accidental release of transgenic pines resistant to RoundUp (glyphosate).  Herbicide-resistant pine trees is one focus for the commercial projects being run by Dr MacRae's employer, Scion Research.  Dr MacRae apparently did not mention the million-dollar cost already incurred by Councils to remove wilding pines that have escaped into the natural environment as weeds.  There is also the more direct problem of transgenes from genetically engineered organisms invading other species in the ecosystems they are grown in.  For example, in relation to widely grown transgenic oilseed rape (canola), Britain’s advisory committee on releases to the environment (ACRE) identified wild turnip, hoary mustard, wild radish, brown mustard, and wild cabbage as species from which hybrids could be formed with the transgenic varieties.  In one field trial plot, researchers found 46% of seeds in a wild turnip plant were contaminated with transgenic DNA.

Dr MacRae presented a slide on ‘GE technology and conventional technology compared’, suggesting that the slow process of breeding and selection of carrots could be bypassed with genetic engineering technology.  Plant breeding has been sped up considerably using the non-transgenic DNA technique of Marker-Assisted Selection (MAS), which bypasses the inherent risks associated with the genetic engineering technology itself.

She also said that conventional breeding can introduce unknown side effects.  Whilst this may happen occasionally, these are easier to see or detect biochemically.  Since the 1990s, it has been documented that the genetic engineering process can produce new and unexpected toxins and allergens that have caused pathological effects in laboratory animals, including premature deaths.  Tumours, deformities in adults and progeny, impaired immune responses and infertility have been observed in independent animal studies.  In 2012, a team of French researchers, led by Professor Gilles-Éric Séralini, University of Caen, France, published a two-year study of Monsanto’s transgenic herbicide-tolerant corn, NK603.  The researchers studied the impacts of the transgenic corn consumption on rats, with and without Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.  The feed trial was conducted over the lifetime of

laboratory rats and showed adverse health impacts after 90 days, when most other studies on transgenic foods end.  The researchers observed mammary tumours, and kidney and liver damage, leading to premature death.                                                           

The findings demand further urgent investigation, including repeating and expanding the research to include transgenic foods that have previously been approved based on inadequate data that cannot assure food safety, as has recently come to light in the manifestation that a large number of common GE plants have been endowed with a gene that was previously unrecognised. (Podevin & du Jardin, 2012).

Of the 86 different transgenic “events” (unique insertions of foreign DNA) commercialized to date in the United States, 54 were found to contain segments of Gene VI which “might result in unintended phenotypic changes” (Podevin & du Jardin, 2012).  The European Food Safety Authority researchers were unable to rule out a hazard to public health or the environment.  Similar fragments of Gene VI have been shown to be active on their own (e.g. De Tapia et al. 1993).  In general, viral genes expressed in plants raise agronomic and human health concerns (Latham and Wilson, 2008) because many viral genes function to disable their host in order to facilitate pathogen invasion.

Dr MacRae says that there are no long-term negative health effects of transgenic crops on the health of laboratory animals (and consequently humans and domesticated animals).  We consider this to be a misrepresentation of the relevant scientific literature.

In 2009, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine issued a statement ‘Genetically Modified Foods’ that included:  "GM foods pose a serious health risk in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune function, reproductive health and metabolic, physiologic and genetic health and are without benefit":

Summary:  an important note for Councillors and Officers


Dr MacRae’s presentation was not scientifically accurate or transparent.  Her employer has a vested interest in ensuring that she and her organisation continue to receive funding for their genetic engineering work.  It is not in her best interest to present to you the problems and risks associated with transgenic crops.  She is not an independent source of information.

The analysis in Dr MacRae’s presentation came from industry and not from independent, peer-reviewed scientific studies.  It must be evaluated in a most critical manner.

For accurate information and to guide your decision making and plan development, we recommend the comprehensive analysis of the myths and truths relating to genetically engineered organisms and peer-reviewed studies found at, the executive summary of which follows this letter.  This document supports PSGR's recommendation.

We draw Council’s attention to the work of Dr Kerry Grundy, Team Leader (Futures Planning) at Whangarei District Council and convener of the ‘Inter-Council Working Party (ICWP) on GMO Risk Evaluation and Management Options’, who has expertise on the issue of whether local government has jurisdiction under the Local Government Act (LGA) and RMA to regulate genetically engineered organisms.  The ICWP has investigated the nature and extent of risks local authorities could expect to face from transgenic organisms in the environment and the options available to address those risks.

With a legal opinion from Dr Royden Somerville QC, the first report (Community Management of GMOs:  Issues, Options and Partnership with Government) found that the HSNO Act does not preclude management of activities involving transgenic organisms in the environment by local authorities under the RMA or the LGA.  This means local authorities do have jurisdiction to manage land uses involving transgenic organisms in the environment under the RMA and LGA over and above the regulation prescribed nationally under HSNO.  This position has subsequently been confirmed by both Crown Law and Ministers for the Environment.

There is also a general duty of care that Councils have to protect their community from uninsurable long-term costs and damage that may arise given the scientific uncertainty around transgenic organisms in situations of commercial open release.

A previous ICWP report also argued that provisions in planning documents formulated under the RMA would be the most appropriate mechanism to regulate activities involving transgenic organisms in the environment at a local or regional level.

PSGR urges Council to apply a precautionary policy on genetically engineered organisms to meet its duty of care to its ratepayers and to protect the environment.


Trustees of PSGR

Paul G Butler, BSc, MB, ChB, Dip.Obst. (Auckland), FRNZCGP, General Practitioner, AUCKLAND

Jon Carapiet, BA(Hons), MPhil. Senior Market Researcher, AUCKLAND


General Practitioner, ROTORUA

Elvira Dommisse BSc (Hons), PhD, Mus.B, LTCL, AIRMTNZ, Scientist, Crop & Food Research Institute (1985-1993), working on GE onion programme, CHRISTCHURCH

Michael E Godfrey, MBBS, FACAM, FACNEM

Director, Bay of Plenty Environmental Health Clinic, TAURANGA

Elizabeth Harris, MBChB, Dip Obs, CNZSM., CPCH, CNZFP; DMM, FRNZCGP

General Practitioner, KUROW

Frank Rowson BVetMed, Veterinarian, MATAMATA

Peter R Wills, BSc, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Auckland, AUCKLAND

Damian Wojcik, BSc, MBChB, Dip.Theology, Dip.Obst., DCH, FRNZCGP, FIBCMT (USA), FACNEM, Director and founder of the Northland Environmental Health Clinic, WHANGAREI

Jean Anderson, Businesswoman retired, TAURANGA.


GMO Myths and Truths

An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops,Michael Antoniou, Claire Robinson, John Fagan; June 2012, Earth Open Source


Executive Summary: Genetically modified (GM) crops are promoted on the basis of a range of far-reaching claims from the GM crop industry and its supporters. They say that GM crops:

  • Are an extension of natural breeding and do not pose different risks from naturally bred crops
  • Are safe to eat and can be more nutritious than naturally bred crops
  • Are strictly regulated for safety
  • Increase crop yields
  • Reduce pesticide use
  • Benefit farmers and make their lives easier
  • Bring economic benefits
  • Benefit the environment
  • Can help solve problems caused by climate change
  • Reduce energy use
  • Will help feed the world.

However, a large and growing body of scientific and other authoritative evidence shows that these claims are not true.  On the contrary, evidence presented in this report indicates that GM crops:

  • Are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods, and pose different risks from non-GM crops
  • Can be toxic, allergenic or less nutritious than their natural counterparts
  • Are not adequately regulated to ensure safety
  • Do not increase yield potential
  • Do not reduce pesticide use but increase it
  • Create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant “superweeds”, compromised soil quality, and increased disease susceptibility in crops
  • Have mixed economic effects
  • Harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity
  • Do not offer effective solutions to climate change
  • Are as energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops
  • Cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes – poverty, lack of access to food and, increasingly, lack of access to land to grow it on.

Based on the evidence presented in this report, there is no need to take risks with GM crops when effective, readily available, and sustainable solutions to the problems that GM technology is claimed to address already exist.  Conventional plant breeding, in some cases helped by safe modern technologies like gene mapping and marker assisted selection, continues to outperform GM in producing high-yield, drought-tolerant, and pest- and disease-resistant crops that can meet our present and future food needs.

To download the report:

or > download report


See also 1. The Sustainability Council of New Zealand; 2. GM Watch; 3. The ETC Group; 4. An up-to-date list of herbicide resistant weeds and the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds on; 5. PSGR Frequently Asked Questions on genetic engineering