Hua Parakore

Māori have continually resisted genetic modification (GM) and GM organisms (GMOs) as incompatible with the protection of mātauranga and tikanga, and kaitiaki responsibilities, and endangering Māori control over organic food production through tikanga-based practices.

The US has led a long campaign against restrictions on GM on behalf of its agribusiness and seeks rules in its free trade agreements (FTAs) that stop countries from imposing restrictions or bans. It also seeks rules that require countries to give foreign corporations (e.g., its biotech agribusinesses) and the US government itself, prior warning of new measures so they can lobby against them and threaten a dispute to get a government to back off.  

Reports indicate that the US had been trying this in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) negotiations in 2023, which Aotearoa New Zealand iparticipated in. Ngā Toki Whakarururanga prepared a brief to the negotiators opposing any such deal.

The Report of the evidence presented by Te Waka Kaiora to the Waitangi Tribunal Inquiry into the Wai 262 claim shows why accepting GM would violate Māori rights, interests, duties and responsibilities and breach the Crown’s obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi:

  • GM and GMOs pose threats to indigenous flora and fauna and thus to food systems, te taiao, tikanga Māori and ourselves more broadly.
  • The movement of genes within an organism and across species impacts on the mauri, wairua and whakapapa of that organism, and its wider surroundings, and is a violation of tapu.
  • The role of kaitiaki is to protect and maintain the mauri of our flora and fauna whanaunga for future generations, including at the molecular level.
  • Māori women hold key roles in the protection of whakapapa, mauri, ira, tapu and as kaitiaki.
  • Past current and future generations have the right to tino rangatiratanga and the tampering with genetic material is in direct conflict with that right.

Jessica Hutchings, a long-standing member of Te Waka Kaiora (the Māori organics network) and a Kaihautū of Ngā Toki Whakarururanga, highlighted attempts by corporate interests to dress up GM as a social or environmental virtue:

The driving motive of corporate biotechnology, however, is neither to attain food security nor to improve health, but it is to use GM to dominate and monopolise the global market in seeds, foods, fibre, and medical products in an overall strategy to control agri-food and biomedical markets. Corporate biotechnology is part of the new global order where global, according to Indian biophysicist and activist, Vandana Shiva, means ‘simply the global domination of local and particular interests, by means of subsuming the multiple diversities of economies, culture and of nature under the control of a few multinational corporations.(p.49)

More recently, US corporates have even claimed that GM is a means to address the climate crisis.

It is clear from the attacks that wāhine Māori experienced from Western scientists in the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification on the validity of mātauranga Māori as science, and more recently controversial comments from a group of academics in the Listener, that restrictions on GMOs based on mātauranga will face similar attacks as not being “science” or “risk”-based, which is the test that free trade agreements apply to such restrictions.

In her evidence to the Waitangi Trubunal on Wai 262, Dr Hutchings specifically warned of the risks to rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga that trade agreements pose to a GM-free Aotearoa:

The debate regarding GM raises not only the issues of protecting mauri … but also the issues of globalisation, free trade, intellectual property rights and the plundering of global resources for profit. If we as Māori are to reject GM then we must also make the connection and strongly reject globalisation and free trade on our land: biotechnology is the new global wave of colonisation. (p.49)

The 2023 coalition government intends to liberalise genetic engineering and allow the release of GMOs. That requires legislation, which will be strongly resisted. The previous government’s response to proposals to relax the GMO restrictions was to “proceed with caution”, with then Environment Minister David Parker reportedly proposing an extremely limited review relating to biomedical research and laboratory research.

But even including GM as a topic in free trade agreements could circumvent that domestic process and endorsement of Tiriti-based approaches to biotech. The limited Treaty of Waitangi Exception only covers positive measures that give “more favourable treatment” of Māori, so it would not cover measures like this that breach an FTA’s rules to protect Māori rights and responsibilities.

Downloadable resources