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Interview with Annette Cotter
The Future Is GE Free

Genetically modified organisms are
unpredictable, irreversible, unnecessary

Wellington, Aotearoa / New Zealand

Annette Cotter is the GE (Genetic Engineering) campaigner for Greenpeace New Zealand.

This interview is part of an extended series of articles and interviews gathered by In Motion Magazine in the context of the 2000-2001 hearings of New Zealand's Royal Commission on Genetic Modification. In Motion Magazine travelled around New Zealand with Missouri Rural Crisis Center and Natiional Family Farm Coalition president Bill Chrisitison visiting farmers and community leaders and listening to their views about genetically modified organisms. Currently there are no commercial GE crops in New Zealand. After hearing the recommendations of the commission the New Zealand government will make a decision on whether or not GE crops will be allowed in New Zealand. This interview was conducted February 20, 2001 by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Market shifts

In Motion Magazine: Can you tell me about Greenpeace New Zealand's GE campaign?

Annette Cotter: We have work related to the Royal Commission and also we work on what we call market shifts. The objective of the market shifts work is to insure that the food companies in New Zealand have a policy to be GE Free. That's what the Greenpeace ship has been doing, the Rainbow Warrior. It has been in New Zealand since mid-December and it left at the beginning of February. The Rainbow Warrior toured the three major NZ cities - Auckland, Wellington , and Christchurch and it also visited Nelson and Northland as well. The message of the tour was "The future is GE Free". We talked to people who came down to look at the ship and have a look around on board. We talked about the GE issue and the ways in which people could get involved.

One of the big areas that we were working on within the market shifts part of the campaign was animal feed because 60,000 tons of GE soy meal comes into the country each year and is fed to our chickens. Our chickens and our pigs.

Greenpeace activist Athena Lambinidou attached to the anchor chain of freighter.
Greenpeace activist Athena Lambinidou attached to the anchor chain of the freighter Federal Pescadores in the Hauraki Gulf, outside of Auckland, New Zealand. December 22, 2000. Copyright fotopress.
The distributor Tegel uses about 50,000 tons a year so we specifically focused on Tegel and their main customer, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). We are working down the supply chain to insure that these companies go GE Free. Hopefully, we'll see some market shifts soon. (Editor: On March 1, 2001, Restaurant Brands, New Zealand, which operates the New Zealand outlets of Pizza Hut, KFC and Starbucks Coffee, announced that it will be working with its suppliers to eliminate any remaining genetically engineered material from all its ingredients and animal feed.)

In Motion Magazine: What were some of those actions?

Annette Cotter: The first action we did was to shut down the distribution center in Pakanini, in south Auckland. That was a Tegel distribution center. Our key message was "Tegel go GE Free -- don't be chicken go GE Free." Chickens allow themselves so many terrible clichés, it's not funny.

From there on we systematically focused on Tegel and KFC.

On the 22nd of December, 2000 we did another specific action. We stopped a ship coming into the Hauraki Gulf carrying a considerable cargo of GE soy.

Stopping a ship

In Motion Magazine: How do you go about stopping a ship?

Annette Cotter: I'm a rock climber and I also do industrial access. I know how to ascend and descend on single or double line. I know how to get on and off a rope down the side of a building or whatever. It's generally called industrial access. I'm a part of the Greenpeace climb team in New Zealand.

We'd been tracking the ship for about two months. We traced it from Long Beach in the United States through to Australia and down to New Zealand. It stopped in at Christchurch.

We knew when it was in Christchurch, and we knew when it was on it's way to Auckland. It anchored outside of the Hauraki Gulf because a berth wasn't available. The morning it was going to up anchor and come into the harbor was the morning we left from the Rainbow Warrior in inflatables and went out there and climbed upon it.

In Motion Magazine: While it was at sea?

Annette Cotter: While it was at sea.

In Motion Magazine: In international waters?

Annette Cotter: No, it wasn’t international. By being outside the pilotage it was out of the harbor but in New Zealand’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). It was just outside the pilotage. The pilot was heading out at the same time. We beat the pilot out to the ship by about half an hour in order to get upon it so that it couldn't go anywhere. Four of us got on the ship through the pilot ladder. We actually had boarding ladders just in case the pilot ladder wasn't down, normal ladders with a hook on the top. You climb up the ladder and then you're on.

There were two teams of two. One team on the front cranes and one team on the back cranes. I was on the front crane. We also had another person who was on the anchor chain. She was stopping the ship from upping anchor. It was quite a dramatic day.

Annette Cotter on the wires.
Annette Cotter (right) on the wires of the fore crane of the freighter Federal Pescadores. Police officer on left is attempting to drag away second Greenpeace activist. See details in text of interview. Copyright fotopress.
The upshot of it was we were arrested and convicted. It was one in a series of actions that we did.

In Motion Magazine: It got the attention you wanted?

Annette Cotter: Yes. Hopefully, we'll see the market shifts that we've been working towards over the next few weeks. I have to go back to Auckland and keep the pressure on, to see that Tegel and KFC actually commit to going GE Free.

Open public process

In Motion Magazine: How long has the GE campaign been going on?

Annette Cotter: In terms of the campaign in general, since 1997.

In Motion Magazine: Why did Greenpeace decide to get involved in the commission process?

Annette Cotter: The importance of this whole process is that it's been seen by the international community as an open public process to address all the issues with GE.

The implications of New Zealand taking a stand and being GE Free are incredibly powerful. The flip side of that, of New Zealand coming out for GE is quite concerning. If GE is seen by the commission as something they'd like to proceed with, and they give recommendations accordingly, can you imagine what a sales point that would be to areas like S.E. Asia? "If it's good enough for clean, green New Zealand, it's good for you."

When we decided that we should get involved in the process, I was of the opinion, and I still am, that if you are going to do anything like that it has to be done extremely well. You do it to the absolute best of your ability. Greenpeace is in quite a remarkable position, in that we can pull a number of international information resources. The problem was that if there was information presented to the commission in support of GE and it wasn't challenged, it would be taken as unchallenged evidence, even if it was completely wrong, even if there were inconsistencies and inaccuracies. If no one was there to say this is opinion masked as fact then they'd get away with it. In that sense, we had a duty to challenge the assumptions that were made by the industry on the issue.

Unpredictable, irreversible, unnecessary

In Motion Magazine: What's wrong with GE?

Annette Cotter: There's three terms which really resound with me that sum up GE. Unpredictable. That's the basis of the concern - the unpredictability of the organisms that are going to be released.

Another one is irreversible. What we are doing now is not going away. GMO's are self-replicating. It's genetic pollution. We can't get them back. We can't retract them. We can't go "whoops" because when it's out in the environment, for all intents and purposes, its completely out of our control.

Greenpeace banner against genetically engineered food
Greenpeace banner against genetically engineered food in New Zealand. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke
And the third is unnecessary. From a personal point of view, and from an ethical point of view, why are we wanting to make things faster and bigger and always better? Why are we on this treadmill that's got to be going faster and faster?

When I started with Greenpeace, I knew nothing about GE and so therefore embarked on quite an incredible learning curve. When we started dealing with the cross-examination of the industry submissions, I went through hundreds and hundreds of pages of testimony which said how fantastic this technology was. It really shook what I had been learning.

In the first instance, how could all these people say it was really good and why were we saying it was not? To have come out the other side of that, to be able to say that after critiquing their arguments ... there's no arguments that stand up.

There are no arguments presented by five weeks of industry last year that had any credibility as far as I'm concerned. And that was from having to go through them all, and critique them, and say, "That's not true. That's not true. That's inconsistent. That's an opinion." We critiqued it to the degree where we could go in there and cross-examine them based on that critique.

In Motion Magazine: What was one of their strong positions that turns out not to be true?

Annette Cotter: There's a huge number. "It's necessary for New Zealand's agricultural export market." "It's going to feed the world." "It's going to be beneficial." "We are going to be able to have vaccines in bananas." "We're going to be able to have virus resistance against terrible problems."

Political will

In Motion Magazine: During the hearing, Chris Hodson the lawyer for the Life Science network said that the government needed a political will in order to act and he wondered what was the state of that political will. What do you think of that?

Annette Cotter:One example of the political will here is that the Labor party got into government on a number of issues including logging, free trade policy, and GE.

What's also been interesting is how policies on GE vary. For example, from an economic point of view, groups like the Game Industry Board, Neat New Zealand, and the Dairy Board have all said before the Commission that they support GE. That they want GE. But, under cross-examination, when asked about their policy at the moment, they say "no release" because their export markets demand that they be GE free.

The Dairy Board is a very good example. The Dairy Board is supportive of the Bovine Growth Hormone because they want to see increases in the amount of milk that they export. Because they want to compete with Australia. But actually the premium at the moment is for organic milk and the Bovine Growth Hormone has been banned throughout the EU and Canada. They stand to lose markets through introducing bovine growth hormone instead of capitalizing on being organic, being GE free, Bovine Growth Hormone free, or whatever, and getting a premium on the world market.

In Motion Magazine: Is there any sense of what the average voter thinks?

Royal Commission members Dr. Jean Fleming and Dr. Jaqueline Allan.
Royal Commission members Dr. Jean Fleming and Dr. Jaqueline Allan. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke
Annette Cotter: The average voter is very opposed to GE. There's been a number of interesting polls that have been conducted and a lot of parallels drawn between what's happening here and in Europe. The opposition to GE in Europe and the opposition to GE in New Zealand are reasonably similar in terms of the scale of opposition. But I don't think at the moment that GE has sufficient profile for people to vote on the basis of a GE policy in the next election. I think that is one of our challenges over the next year, to insure that the profile is sufficient so that the Labor government knows it will lose the next election if it's pro-GE. Much like in the early '80s, with the nuclear free movement, where the Labor government at the time was actually pro-nuclear but the public sentiment was such that they knew that they would lose the next election if they were supportive of nuclear technology.

From Monsanto to the Rural Forest and Bird Protective Society

In Motion Magazine: Who have been the principal players in the hearings?

Annette Cotter: The first week, Commission submissions were made by major multinational agro-chemical companies like Monsanto, DuPont, and Aventis.

Following them were the Crown Research Institutes. They are the supposedly government bodies which do research in crops and food, and the forest industry. They are companies who get some of their funding from the government but a great deal of their funding comes from the private sector as well. They professed to be neutral but they aren't in fact because they are working for commercial ends. For instance, at the Ruakura site they have genetically-engineered sheep and cattle. At that Crown Research Institute there are cattle with human genes and genetically-engineered sheep.

All of the universities presented. What was interesting about the universities was that under cross-examination a number of the universities admitted that the work that they were doing wouldn't change if there's was a policy that banned release into the environment because much of their work is in laboratories.

After the universities, there were those with medical concerns. Those who are using genetic engineering for medical uses.

Then there were the trade industry groups like the Dairy Board, the Federated Farmers, the Game Industry Board, Meat New Zealand. As I indicated earlier, what was interesting about this group was that they recognized that at the moment demand does not exist for GE food. For examaple,the Kiwifruit Board in General have a policy which says don't release GE because you are going to destroy our market advantage in overseas markets. Similarly, to an extent, Meat New Zealand and the Game Industry Board said "We wouldn't oppose a ban at this stage."

When the organic representative was cross-examining the Game Industry Board, he said, "For economic reasons you are saying no to the release. Because of our economic reasons and also according to our organic farming philosophy, the way that we want to grow food, we are saying no to the release. There's some common elements here."

At this point the hearing shifted from the pro-GE section to the anti-GE section. There was a week of organics groups. They formed a coalition and were present during a great deal of the cross-examination of the Life Sciences industry. They spent most of the week presenting evidence to the commission about organics and why organic farming is not compatible with GE. About their markets, their predictions of future markets for organics. They made a solid case for the organics industry.

Next were various environmental groups, including GE Free, a coalition of groups around the country. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Green party presented evidence. Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics, Pacific Institute of Resource Management presented a number of key witnesses.

There were the classic environmentalists groups Rural Forest and Birds Protection Society, Environment and Conservation Organization.

Greenpeace team at Royal Commission on Genetic Modification hearings.
Greenpeace team members at Royal Commission on Genetic Modification hearings. From left, Bill Christison (U.S.), Terje Traavik (Norway), Jim Thomas (U.K.) and Annette Cotter. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke
There were three weeks of various environmental groups presenting evidence. It was interesting because they all came from a slightly different aspect. We covered the concerns of GE and its implications quite well. The safe food campaign brought over an epidemiologist from Australia who did a very solid critique of the approval body which allowed for genetically engineered food types into the country. Greenpeace focused on the environmental threats at a broad level while the Forest and Bird Protection Society looked at the environmental threats to the flora and fauna.

In the last two weeks, various Maori groups, religious and church groups made presentations. On the last day there were submissions by the government body ERMA, which approves GE releases, and the Ministry for the Environment.

"We don't support the patenting of life"

In Motion Magazine: What is Greenpeace's view on the political role that patents can play?

Annette Cotter: Our bottom line is that we don't support the patenting of life. From the most ethical and fundamental point of view, life is not the invention of a genetic engineer. You can't patent something that has existed in the global common for generations, for millions of years. In fact, it's an insult to the way in which we live in nature to even think we can do so.

From a practical point of view, it assumes a great deal of control in the hands of a few. For instance, if you have a patent on a variety of rice you can put things in place so that other people can't get access to that resource. It's another vehicle for control over resources.

Also see:

Published in In Motion Magazine May 19, 2001.

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