The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification: Not the Whole Answer?

Nathaniel Centre Staff
Issue 1, August 2000

The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification has begun work on the huge task of inquiring into and reporting on the strategic options available to New Zealand with respect to genetic modification. This work is to be completed by June 2001. The Commission has four members: Sir Thomas Eichelbaum (Chair), Dr Jean Fleming, Rev Richard Randerson, and Dr Jaqueline Allan. A voluntary moratorium on all applications for release and (with some exceptions) field testing of genetically modified organisms for the duration of the Royal Commission is being negotiated between Government and affected groups.

The Terms of Reference for the Royal Commission require it to investigate the current use of genetic modification (GM) in New Zealand; the level of uncertainty about applications of GM; risks, benefits and opportunities for New Zealand from either the use or avoidance of GM technologies; intellectual property issues; international legal obligations; Treaty of Waitangi issues associated with GM; and areas of public interest such as human health, environmental concerns, the economic implications of GM, and cultural and ethical concerns. The Commission is expected to consult widely, and in a manner which will encourage people to participate in putting forward scientific, environmental, ethical and cultural perspectives on genetic modification.

While the scope of the Royal Commission's work was predictable given its name, it is interesting to look from a bioethics perspective at what is outside the Commission's scope. Because its focus is on genetic modification many other aspects of biotechnology are excluded from its work. For example, the Human Genome Project and its applications such as genetic testing have major implications for society, but are outside the Commission's brief. Assisted human reproductive technologies, cloning and probably xenotransplantation will not be considered. Given the sensitivity of these issues and the many ethical concerns that arise from them, it will be interesting to see how the Government proposes to involve the public in determining policy in these areas.