Report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification : A Via Media

Anne Dickinson and Michael McCabe
Issue 4, August 2001

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification has recommended that New Zealand should "preserve its opportunities and keep its options open" and that "it would be unwise to turn our back on the potential advantages on offer, but we should proceed carefully, minimizing and managing risks."

The approach taken by the Royal Commission could be described as a "Via Media", that is, a middle way, the path of wisdom and balance. This approach reflects that taken by the Catholic Bishops' Conference in their submission to the Commission. The Report shows that balancing individual rights and interests with the greater good of society is no easy task, especially with regard to agriculture and horticulture.

The Commission's Ethical Approach

  • In addressing the question of ethics the Commission identified the complexity of the cultural, spiritual, and ethical issues arising in the GM and biotechnology area.
  • The difficulty of linking cultural ethical and spiritual values with the making of specific decisions.
  • The question as to whether New Zealanders have common core values.

The Royal Commission see values as arising from a person's "world view". They identified three types of world view in the submissions they received.

  • The traditional Māori world view
  • The ecological world view
  • World views from the Judeo-Christian tradition

From these world views they have derived seven "core values" which they believe are shared by many New Zealanders and are relevant to a consideration of genetic modification:

  • The uniqueness of Aotearoa New Zealand
  • The uniqueness of our cultural heritage
  • Sustainability
  • Being part of a global family
  • The well-being of all
  • Freedom of choice
  • Participation

They note that "people draw their values from different sources and yet also hold values in common." In our view these core values will have relevance for other biotechnological debates in the future.

Ethical Decision Making

When these core values are set within an ethical framework then the spiritual, ethical and cultural dimensions of GM can be adequately considered in a way that maximises the benefits of GM while minimising its harms. The Commission's Report describes two approaches to decision making - a Pakeha and a Māori approach.

  • In the Pakeha approach they identified four key elements in the ethical decision-making process:
  • A clear statement of the values to be used as criteria [our common core]
  • Full information on the specific data relating to the case to be decided
  • A holistic approach that looks at both the data and the values in a connected manner
  • Appropriate participation by stakeholders [or with an interest] in the decision making process

In the Māori approach to decision-making no distinction is made between the process and the outcome. Consensus is preferred even if it takes time. Emotion is expected, vented and tolerated and reconciliation is part of reaching consensus. When there are difficulties in both reconciliation and in reaching consensus the subject of discussion will be left to provide time and space for people to think about a solution. From the perspective of Māori, ethical decisions are reached at the meeting point of the spiritual and natural worlds. In the Pakeha approach ethical decisions arise at the conjunction of values with the specifics of a particular situation.

Moving Ahead Together

There is common ground in the two approaches because values flow from spirituality while the specifics of a situation are located within the material dimension. The Commission sees this commonality as representing a 'shared way ahead' in which the combining of core values with a situational context lead to an ethical decision.

As a means of dealing with the complexity of the issues the Commission has recommended that some decisions should be taken at a higher level which takes account of the values held by New Zealanders. To this end it has recommended the establishment of Toi te Taiao - The Bioethics Council. This Council will consider the ethical, spiritual and cultural dimensions of genetic modification that cannot be addressed adequately in the course of the case-by-case decisions of regulatory bodies. The Commission sees the Council as being "a vital forum where issues of national significance are addressed, and appropriate guidelines formulated supporting practical outcomes."

The Bioethics Council would be required to involve the public in the consideration of major ethical issues. They have recommended that the membership should be selected to ensure that the Council is credible, expert and independent. They have rejected "stakeholder" representation in favour of broad-based representation, with effective Māori participation being essential.

The Commission has also recommended the establishment of a Commissioner on Biotechnology who would audit the bodies charged with decision making in biotechnology as well as watching the interaction between new technologies and society and all issues to do with the application of biotechnology in New Zealand. The future watch and oversight of the Parliamentary Commissioner is essential. When combined with the role of the Bioethics Council we may begin to see the development of good dialogue between the biotechnology community and wider society.

The Principle of Autonomy

In the oral submission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference it was stressed that one of the most challenging aspects of developing an ethical framework for genetic modification would be the application of the principle of respect for autonomy. They noted that, "In relation to genetic modification the teasing out of respect for autonomy requires a commitment to dialogue, with a multidisciplinary and multicultural approach being essential. Such a dialogue challenges all groups engaged in the debate to stand in the shoes of others rather than simply dismissing perspectives which differ from their own."

Certain groups in the GM debate have viewed the Commission as an arbitrator who would hand down very specific recommendations in the particularly contentious areas of agriculture and horticulture. Instead the Commission has chosen to allow field release of genetically modified crops with a strict regulatory and control process. It has also instructed the different agricultural groups to work with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to develop an industry code of practice to ensure effective separation distances between genetically modified and unmodified crops. The dialogue process involved in developing codes of practice will be a healthy development, and if it is conducted with good will, potentially be a means of reversing the process of polarisation that has characterised this debate.

We recognise that not everyone will be in favour of the Royal Commission's recommendations. New Zealanders agreed on the Royal Commission as a process to move us beyond the paralysis created by polarisation. The Commissioners are the only group of people to have heard all sides of the debate, as well as doing their own research and investigation. We entrusted the resolution of society's polarisation to them. They have recommended a way forward which provides for strict controls on genetic modification as well as allowing some freedom for New Zealand to benefit from the technology. The Government must now decide how to translate their recommendations into action.


Anne Dickinson and Michael McCabe