Can the Green door be opened to GE debate?

Greens look like remaining staunchly opposed to genetic engineering, but the national party is trying to push against this.

Last week from Newshub:  Govt blocking breakthrough technology that could make New Zealand predator-free

There’s a major roadblock within the Beehive over the role genetic engineering (GE) could play in a predator-free New Zealand by 2050.

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage has stopped any and all work being done to use GE technology, despite official advice suggesting it could be used to help rid New Zealand of predators.

But Ms Sage told Newshub she is not interested in going down the GE “rabbit hole”.

“We want to focus on existing tools, making them better and finding new tools without being diverted down the potential rabbit hole of GE research.”

In one email, she wrote: “Please be assured that the department is clear about my expectations regarding genetic technologies. It has informed me that there is no mammalian gene drive technology research currently occurring in New Zealand.

“I have also required Predator Free 2050 Ltd to carry out appropriate due diligence on any co-funded projects before agreeing on any contracts, and have explicitly required them not to be involved in any research with genetically modified organisms and technologies such as CRISPR or gene editing.”

In another email, the minister made a similar comment: “I have been clear about my expectations regarding such technologies.”

Official advice also said the technology has the potential to control pests “in a humane and efficient manner without inadvertently harming other species like native birds”.

But Ms Sage told Newshub the Government isn’t blocking work in the area, there’s just been no decision to advance any discussion in the area.

“There’s no public mandate to do any work in that space – it would be a major change in Government policy.”

Alex Braae (The Spinoff):  Door opened to GE Free debate

It has been one of the cornerstone policies of New Zealand environmentalism for the past two decades. New Zealand’s GE Free status has been maintained throughout our primary sector, meaning horticulture and agricultural products can be sold under the label. But it looks likely a thorny debate is about to get underway over whether that should be continued.

Why? The National Party is pushing for that debate to start, and they’re being backed by former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, reports Politik.

Sir Peter says we should be looking at relaxing rules gene editing – not quite the same thing as genetic modification, but not a million miles away either – here’s an excellent explainer that outlines the differences further down the page. It’s perhaps a bit disingenuous to describe it as a call for a debate too – intelligent people don’t call for debates on topics if they don’t intend to then win the argument.

In particular, the topic in question is a type of ryegrass currently being trialled in the USA, which when eaten by cows could reduce their methane emissions by up to 25%. New Zealand’s output of methane is a significant contributor to our total emissions, and the argument goes that finding ways to reduce that is the best contribution we could make to reducing global emissions.

It’s also entirely in line with National’s approach to climate change policy, which they want to have minimal economic impact, and be primarily driven by science and technology, rather than cutting production.

But would it actually have minimal economic impact? 

This piece on Pure Advantage’s website (an organisation that promotes cohesion between business and environmentalism) argues that any changes to policy in New Zealand could be incredibly damaging to our global brand.

It’s fair to say that the science isn’t fully settled on the full potential benefits and risks of gene editing and other related techniques. However, as the experts collated by the Science Media Centre last year pointed out, that’s because more research needs to happen, and they largely support that research taking place.

In this Stuff story, Minister Sage said there wasn’t a push from New Zealanders for the GE policy to be changed. But if a flashpoint issue were to emerge, that could change very quickly.

I doubt it will change much at all while the Greens are in Government.

Q&A, Nation interview outgoing and incoming Chief Science Advisors

Q&A today:

Yesterday:

The Prime Minister’s incoming Chief Science Advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard says she wants to ensure independence in her role and retain the ability to speak out against “bad science.”

Professor Gerrard told Newshub Nation she wants to make sure the integrity of her office is not undermined by politics, or an obligation to the Prime Minister.

“It’s an independent role and that independence is absolutely critical. So it’s my job to speak out if we see [bad science],” said Professor Gerrard.

One of her key priorities in her new role  is to find a balance between the urgency of policy-making and making sure her science advice is thorough.

“Science is slow and methodical, traditionally, and policy has to be made in response to urgent issues. The challenge of science advice is to really marry those two timelines”

Modern living impacts on mental health and suicide

Peter Gluckman, from the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, has released a discussion document on youth suicide.

It says that complex issues are involved but the pressures of modern living are a major stress factor.

An edited version of the report:


Youth Suicide in New Zealand: a Discussion Paper

Not all suicide is the same and youth suicide often has different drivers to suicide at later ages. Further while much is spoken and argued about its prevention, it remains a complex and contentious area with much advocacy for unproven interventions.

In particular this paper makes the point that youth suicide is more than simply a mental health issue and that, with what we know at present, the focus must also include an emphasis on primary prevention starting from very early in life. This means promoting resilience to the inevitable exposure to emotional stresses and building self-control skills in early childhood and primary school years, by using approaches that we already know about.

It means promoting mental health awareness and ensuring that there are competent and adequate adult and peer support systems in secondary schools. This must be backed up by a capacity to find and rapidly support those children and young adults who are in mental distress and ensuring that the needed interventions and therapy are early and effective.

The changing context of a young person

The way that young people live their lives has changed greatly over recent decades and this has created a range of poorly understood but probably critical pressures that affect their psyche and behaviour.

Family structure has changed; childrearing practices have changed; for many, the level of parental engagement has changed. Technology has changed the nature of their social networks and communication; media, celebrities and other social factors can create unrealistic expectations and pressures on young people.

Compared to previous generations, youth face many more choices at an earlier age, but at the same time may have less clarity as to their path ahead. The role of traditional community supports such as sports, church and other youth groups has declined. Youth now have more access to credit cards and money that gives them greater freedoms.

The pace of these sociological and technological changes is unprecedented and it is not surprising that for many young people, particularly those with less psychological resilience, it can leave them with a growing sense of dislocation.

The many factors that impinge on the risk of youth suicide

Youth suicide cannot be considered as just a mental disorder. A number of factors interplay. Studies in the US5 and elsewhere4,6 show that the likelihood of a suicide attempt is associated with a number of factors including:

  • socio-demographic factors and restricted educational achievement;
  • family discord and poor family relationships;
  • the tendency to being impulsive;
  • what is termed externalising behaviour (anti-social behaviours, and alcohol
    problems);
  • what is termed internalising behaviour (e.g., depression);
  • low self-esteem, hopelessness, loneliness;
  • drug and alcohol misuse;
  • a history of suicidal behaviour among family and friends; and
  • partner- or family-violence exposure in adolescence.

Impulsive-aggressive behaviours are commonly associated with suicide in young
people and decline as a factor with age. Youth who demonstrate antisocial or
delinquent behaviours are 10 times more likely to have attempted suicide.

The key conclusion from these studies is that youth suicide needs to be regarded as much more complex than simply outward evidence of mental disorder. Rather, it needs to be seen as the result of a state of stressed, impaired or underdeveloped self-control in which mental health, emotional and brain development, alcohol, sociological, economic, and other factors interact to put some young people at greater risk.

Adolescence as a vulnerable period – brain, biology, and behaviour

There is now compelling evidence that children who enter puberty at a younger age
are at far greater risk of behavioural, psychological, and emotional disorder. There
are probably multiple reasons for this but most relate to:

  • a longer period before those counterbalancing inhibitory brain pathways
    fully mature;
  • greater sociological and sexual pressures related to the mismatch between
    the earlier onset of physical signs of maturity and psychosexual ideation and
    chronological age: and
  • socialising with older peers who may be engaged in or express anti-social
    behaviours.

There is unequivocal evidence that children who enter puberty relatively early:

  • are more likely to indulge in alcohol and drug abuse;
  • often demonstrate more impulsive behaviours; and
  • boys show greater impairment in the quality of their relationships.

Variation in suicide rates across population groups

Many factors appear to contribute to explaining the different prevalence of youth
suicide across different population groups. They include:

  • living in environments where low self-esteem within the peer group is
    common;
  • poverty, inequality, and social fragmentation;
  • having a high rate of engagement with the justice sector and a greater
    presence of gangs;
  • higher use of drugs and alcohol2; and
  • suicidal behaviour becoming a means of demonstrating worth to the peer
    group

Deficits in self-control

Adolescence is a period of relatively poorly developed self-control and heightened impulsive behaviour. This is why some stressors that do not lead to troubled emotional responses in more mature individuals can do so in some in this age group.

So, rather than resilience, which might be expected – and needed – we see severe and harmful (including self-harm) responses. These stressors can include aspects of engagement with peers (e.g., bullying, including cyber-bullying) and emotional situations (e.g., break up of relationships).

A further possible factor is a substantial change in the way we raise children: they now tend to be under tight control in the pre-pubertal period but less control postpuberty (as reflected in: school subject choice; parental controls on time, place and behaviour; access to credit cards; access to internet, etc.).

In contrast, 50 years ago, western child rearing practice followed a loose–tight pattern in which pre-pubertal children had more freedoms, especially to undertake risky play, but adolescence was much more constrained. This reversal may have resulted in a reduction in the capacity to self-assess risk in adolescence.

Alcohol and drugs

Alcohol intoxication or a history of alcohol abuse are often associated with youth suicide30. Alcohol misuse is often associated with triggering events (conflicts in peer and intimate relationships) and, in relation to suicidal behaviours, is probably underestimated and under-reported. Furthermore, alcohol reduces self-control, can increase despair and depression and, among those with mental disorders, exacerbates symptoms.

New Zealand data show that considerably more than half of youth suicides involve alcohol or illicit drug exposure.

Peer influences, bullying and cyber-bullying

Adolescence is a stage of life when there is a “trading of dependency on parents for dependency on peers”: it is therefore not surprising that peer relationships affect mood and behaviour, including possible suicidal behaviour.

Peer influences may be particularly evident in the growing evidence for online bullying leading to self-harm. Bullying in schools occurs in many countries to varying degrees but the reported rates are high in New Zealand.

Implications for reducing the incidence of youth suicide

Suicide prevention is complicated because we do not understand the causes well enough at the individual level. Completed suicide is a rare event so it is difficult to study in the way we can study influenza or diabetes. It is really hard to predict at an individual level, with perhaps the best indicator being a previous suicide attempt/self-harm even though most who commit self-harm (which may or may not be an attempted suicide) do not go on to commit suicide.

Nevertheless, the 8–9% of all youth who are suicide attempters – with their high subsequent life-course costs (as they often have long-term psychological morbidity) to themselves, family, whānau, and society – are an important risk-group to target.

There is no definitive solution but there is a growing consensus on the following.

Primary prevention: This must start in the pre-pubertal period and is aimed at  developing resilience to the inevitable stressors of growing up, and promoting development of impulse control. The broader benefits of this approach49 include major spillover benefits to educational achievement and, later, in employment, family stability, and quality-of-life measures.

Such approaches must start early in life – and early childhood is an important opportunity for enhancing these skills and should be an evaluable focus of all early childhood education. There needs to be intense engagement with the most vulnerable families in the first years of their children’s life.

There is clear and strong evidence that a primary prevention strategy using welldefined
and structured activities (e.g., Good Behaviour Game) focused on behaviour in primary school children as young as 6 and 7 contributes to reducing later adolescent suicidality as well as other unwanted behaviours, and we would strongly suggest the introduction of this into all primary schools.

Secondary prevention: This refers to programmes that focus on the adolescent period and seek to identify those at risk and make referrals when necessary. Such programmes include activities that seek to increase understandings and change attitudes about youth suicide and to enhance the capacity to intervene and prevent.

The role of teachers, trained counselors and peer leaders is seen as key. There is some evidence to support the importance of adults actively engaging with distressed students, but outside those situations where close counseling relationships have been developed, these programmes tend to be distressingly ineffective. Better results are claimed when secondary prevention is combined with primary prevention and engaging peer leaders (that is well-trained youth leaders).

Tertiary prevention: This focuses on those who are identified as being at particular risk, for example having attempted suicide. It generally involves CBT or medication or both; as noted above, the effect on suicidality, as opposed to other aspects of mental health, is relatively small. Although investing in youth mental health is a critical priority for the reduction of adolescent and adult mental health disorders, it cannot be the only strategy for reducing youth suicide.

Summary and conclusions

Youth suicide remains a complex, multifaceted challenge. A focus on adolescent mental health, although important, is not sufficient. Rather, we conclude that the high-priority need is to introduce and reinforce programmes focused on primary prevention starting early in life and developing secondary prevention strategiesinvolving well-trained and engaged mentors including peer mentors. Understanding and co-design with our communities and particularly with Māori perspectives will be crucial at each stage as we develop, test and take to scale approaches shown to make a difference.

The primary prevention approach involves strategies to improve impulse control and executive function from early childhood and this has broad spillover benefits. It involves combining these critical interventions in early childhood and primary education with secondary prevention approaches in adolescents and it requires a social investment approach particularly focusing on those communities with low resilience and self-esteem.

http://www.pmcsa.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/17-07-26-Youth-suicide-in-New-Zealand-a-Discussion-Paper.pdf