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Kia ora Katoa @ Genetic Modification

posted 17 Apr 2015, 15:58 by Fiona Cram   [ updated 18 Feb 2016, 22:43 ]


I am currently a Year 13 student and am doing a research paper into Genetic Modification in New Zealand.

I was looking through some websites on Genetic Modification, and saw that you were representatives of the Maori viewpoint. I would like to ask you, directly, for your opinion of genetic modification now, and I would like to know, if that has changed or adapted since the time of the writing of the Royal Commission Report. I know that there is some stuff about it online, but it would mean a lot to me if I knew how the Māori community really does feel about genetic modification, and hear it from you.


Kia ora

You ask some interesting questions. My own interest in genetic modification arose from a more general interest in Māori decision-making, particularly in the face of contemporary issues that challenge traditional rules and ways of living (e.g., where should we put the composting toilet and what should we do with the compost?). New technologies fit really nicely among these contemporary issues; for example, should we be genetically tested to find out whether we have a gene for breast cancer in our whanau, or should we agree to grow genetically modified trees on our land?

When I think about these types of questions there is information I want, and discussions I think need to happen so that everyone involved can make an informed decision (whether this is yes or no or maybe) about how to proceed. Here are some of those questions:

1. What is known about the science of what's being proposed?

One of the issues at the time of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was that scientists seemed to be telling us that the science said genetic medication was ‘safe’ whereas we knew that much of the science was uncertain about this. There was a feeling that some scientists were running way ahead of usual scientific precautions in the quest for new knowledge. A lot more is known about the science of genetic modification now and some notable critics have changed their minds as a result of improved science, or at least improved scientific communication (on account of messages being mis-understood before). So I think we have gained more certainty about the science, although I’m not sure we fully understand the implications of genetic engineering on generations to come.

2. What is the expert opinion of Māori elders and those with deep cultural knowledge?

We should be guided by our own experts, and I think over the past ten or more years there’s been a growing understanding and dialogue among Māori experts about what a cultural view of genetic modification is. Some of those I’ve spoken with say that if we explain what we’re asking to Māori cultural experts then they are not generally opposed to genetic modification, but I haven’t seen this described in a formal publication. I do, however, believe that Māori have safety precautions within tikanga and karakia that can keep people and places safe. So there may well be circumstances were genetic modification can occur with the right cultural safety mechanisms in place.

The issue I have with the RoyalCommission is that they were unable to provide a response that integrated my #1 and #2, possibly because they believed the scientists when they said that only those who understood the science of GM could enter the debate. This is epistemological racism; that is, where one group (scientists) think their knowledge and worldview is privileged / more important than the knowledge and worldview of another group (Māori).

3. Is this a private or a public issue?

One of the things I’ve noticed is that Māori can be all against genetic testing within a group discussion until one person talked about their own, or close friend/relative’s, health experience (e.g., breast cancer) and how genetic testing might have really helped or even saved them. When a personal experience is described the group’s opinion changes to become more in favour of genetic testing. So should we impose blanket restrictions on something for the ‘public good’ when individual and whanau might well benefit?

I think this question is a reason why Māori opinions about genetic modification are most liberal in the health area - we understand the importance of good health and being helped to obtain it through different means. The tricky thing is that often the things that are most helpful are things that Māori cannot afford or cannot access (this brings me to #4).

4. Who will benefit?

There are lots of stories of Māori and other Indigenous groups having blood taken and genetically analysed. Sometimes the result is drugs being developed that Indigenous peoples don’t benefit from and cannot afford. By ‘benefit’ I mean the financial benefit that drug companies get from these drugs and their reluctance to profit-share with Indigenous people. There are probably lots of examples of profiteering from Indigenous bloodlines, plant and medicinal knowledge, etc. This has been happening since the early days of colonisation, and genetic engineering has really just brought a new tool along. This is why Indigenous peoples are sceptical as they’ve seen this form of colonisation in many different disguises.

The issue I have with the Royal Commission is that issues of Intellectual Property and profit sharing weren’t really addressed. The WAI 262 claim was supposed to bring all these issues to the fore but I’m not sure it’s gotten the traction it’s deserved in terms of any government decision about Māori intellectual property and flora and fauna.

We also need to be cautious of arguments about who will benefit that are based on political realities. For example, the argument we heard about GM being needed so the world could be fed was based on the political reality that even though there was enough food being produced in the world for all, it wasn’t getting to those most in need (because of politics, trade barriers, commercial concerns). I wonder if this is still the case, as it there are now more people in the world and arguments about food running out (especially in light of global warming) may have gained some truth to them (but I haven’t looked in to this closely).


There are probably other questions that might be asked. Some of the ethical concerns are also addressed in Te Ara Tika, although its mostly focused on health research.

My main point is about trying to understand what Māori (and people more generally) need to know so they can make good decisions based on the best information they have available. And there needs to be room for people to be able to put off decision-making because not enough is known about the answers to one or more questions to make a good decision right now.

So I hope this provides a little response to your questions. 

Ngā mihi, nā Fiona

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