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ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
18 July 2002
 

NZ PARTY FOES U-TURN ON GE/SWEETCORN SAGA LEAVES BITTER TASTE FOR NEW ZEALAND PREMIER

It's now clear that claims by NZ's Environment Minister Marian Hobbs and Prime Minister Clark that there was "no contamination" and, in the case of Hobbs, that if there had been any doubt about there being contamination the sweetcorn in question would have been pulled up, simply can't be supported by the facts. The chief executive of the regulators, ERNA - the Environmental Risk Management Authority, has made it clear, "At no stage have we said, categorically, that there was no contamination."

Just as damaging for the ruling party has been the release of documents showing the extraordinarily close working relationship between officials and Novartis PR company. One e-mail from Novartis PR manager Norrey Simmons read: "We have taken the liberty of drafting an updated [government] statement [to the press] that diverts the debate from the corn issue to a more generic issue of recognising the need to develop a practical protocol." Environment Minister Hobbs now says she will investigate Novartis PR involvement  -- after the election!

As Labour's lead weakens in the wake of corn-gate, making coalition government likely, New Zealand First - Labour's only alternative coalition partner to the Greens - has done a policy u-turn, saying it now favours an extension of the GE field trial moratorium.

1. NZ FIRST MAKES U-TURN ON GE
2. Sweetcorn saga leaves bitter taste for New Zealand premier
3. LABOUR WILL AGREE TO THE GREENS' BOTTOM LINE

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1. NZ FIRST MAKES U-TURN ON GE

The Christchurch Press, Independent Newspapers Limited  July 16, 2002

Labour's alternative coalition partner, New Zealand First, may join the Greens in ruling out an extension to the GE moratorium, as the fallout from "corngate" continues. NZ First yesterday performed an about-turn on its policy over the moratorium on the release of genetically engineered (GE) organisms, arguing the ban should remain in place unless it could be proved there was no risk to "humanity or to our environment". The party's announcement follows Government denials that it allowed the world's second-largest seed company to redraft a crucial press statement diverting attention from a scare over the accidental release of genetically engineered sweet corn. More documents on the "corngate" saga, released by Environment Minister Marian Hobbs, show Novartis, the company that distributed a suspect batch of sweet corn to New Zealand growers in 2000, argued in favour of not telling the public about the possible accidental release of GE. In an email to Environment Ministry communications manager Kathy McNeill, Novartis public relations manager Norrey Simmons wrote: "We have taken the liberty of drafting an updated statement that diverts the debate from the corn issue to a more generic issue of recognising the need to develop a practical protocol."

 The documents also show the seed industry told the Government that its entire livelihood would be destroyed if it attempted a 100 per cent ban on GE seeds. Officials estimated that ripping up the corn crops feared to be genetically modified would have cost the Government around $ 1 million. Ms Hobbs' eventual statement on December 19, 2000 -- which the seed industry saw a week beforehand -- did refer to a scare over GE sweet corn, but said it had not eventuated. Ms Hobbs did not mention that 178ha of the corn was already in the ground. Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said yesterday that it was clear the seed industry had been too close to the GE corn story, and had helped shape the way it was presented to the public. "It is completely inappropriate that industry PR was party to the decisions about what the public should be told. Those decisions should always be made independently by Government."

 But Ms Hobbs said her press release bore no relation to the draft proposed by Ms Simmons. She said she had not known Ms Simmons was involved and that "would certainly not be appropriate". Ms Hobbs said she would investigate Ms Simmons' involvement after the election. Hundreds of pages of documents now released on the corn saga paint a picture of official confusion and alarm, despite Government denials that any release of GE corn ever took place. They also show the Government based its claim that there was no evidence of GE seeds in the batch of sweet corn on a reanalysis of test results, conducted by its own Environmental Risk Management Agency (Erma). Erma's analysis on December 5, 2000, came just one day after a crisis meeting between Erma, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Ministry of Agriculture. Handwritten notes from that meeting show officials were working on the establishment of a 0.5 per cent threshold tolerance for GE, which they were confident the corn shipment would meet. The threshold was later dropped. "Politicians need to sell data to NZ public greater than 0.5 per cent not acceptable. MAF/Erma need to advise Government ministers of spins on this," the notes say.

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2. Sweetcorn saga leaves bitter taste for New Zealand premier

Agence France Presse July 16, 2002

WELLINGTON, July 16 BODY: New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark's hopes of a clear majority after the July 27 elections appear dashed, according to opinion polls taken after last week's scandal over contaminated corn seed. Less than a week after shock allegations that the popular Labour premier and her government had covered up an accidental release of genetically engineered (GE) sweetcorn, polls show the tough-talker has lost support though not nearly enough to see her voted out on July 27. Since the last elections in 1999, Labour has been the main party in a coalition with the left-leaning, but recently disbanded, Alliance Party, with support in the house from the Greens.

 The latest Television One-Colmar Brunton poll released late Sunday showed Labour down five points to 46 percent and Clark down two points as preferred prime minister to 48 percent. The poll of 1,000 voters was taken from July 8 to 11. Meanwhile, a Sunday Star Times survey showed the issue had hit both the Labour and Green parties. Twenty-six percent of the 500 people surveyed said Clark's handling of the issue had changed their opinion of her for the worse, while 38 percent said the issue had changed their view of the Green party for the worse. The row hit last Wednesday when a book released by environmental activist Nicky Hager claimed GE crops were released in New Zealand in November 2000 and had been allowed to grow and be processed for consumption. Clark responded angrily, calling the allegation "an outrage". She accused rival parties, including the Greens, of "dirty" and "gutter" politics for backing the allegations and questioning her integrity.

 Meanwhile the New Zealand public is divided over what has become an acutely sensitive issue -- whether to end next October's moratorium to allow commercial release of GE organisms. Many fear scientists do not know enough about the long term effects of releasing GE organisms into the food chain, and that doing so would also damage New Zealand's relatively clean, green image used to sell agricultural produce overseas. The Greens, who support the benefits laboratory-based GE research can bring to the economy, want the moratorium in place for at least another three years. Some analysts say the Greens will gain in the coming election as the public sees a greater need to keep Labour honest over GE issues, despite the Greens dipping in the latest poll for failing to be informed of the alleged cover-up. Scientific tests ordered by the government did not completely rule out GE contamination but said there was no reason to destroy the crops, planted country-wide with seed shipped in from the United States. "The conclusion we reached was that based on all the information available, we could not conclude that there was a reasonable case for requiring the crop to be pulled up," Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) chief executive Bas Walker told National Radio. "At no stage have we said, categorically, that there was no contamination."

 However, Environment Minister Marian Hobbs and Clark have both said there was "no contamination."

 Erma's science manager, Dr Donald Hannah, concluded that the overall level of contamination in the seed batch was about 0.04 percent. This would have been equivalent to 15,000 seeds containing altered DNA. Hannah found that some tests were positive, indicating the possibility of GE contamination.

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3. DONALD SAYS LABOUR WILL AGREE TO THE GREENS' BOTTOM LINE

New Zealand Press Association New Zealand Press Association, July 16,
2002

Wellington, July 16 - Green Party co-leader Rod Donald said tonight he believed Labour would agree to extend the moratorium on genetic engineering as the price for a coalition partner. Despite the icy relationship existing between the two parties, Mr Donald played down the problems and was confident a deal could be made after the election.

 Asked in a TV One interview whether he thought Labour would cave in'' to the Greens' demand on the moratorium, he replied: They will. What's the alternative?'' He said the Greens were entitled to hold a bottom line by demanding that the moratorium be extended beyond October next year, and in coalition talks he intended driving hard bargains on other issues as well. He gave as examples buying back the rail track and the imposition of a carbon tax. Prime Minister Helen Clark has repeatedly said the Greens ruled themselves out of coalition by threatening to vote against any government that refused to extend the moratorium but Mr Donald did not seem to believe that. I think Labour will change their minds,'' he said. He was one of a trio of minor party leaders interviewed live in Parliament's debating chamber by Kim Hill. Progressive Coalition leader Jim Anderton said he would not rejoin the Labour Party because his own new party was very different to it. He said he had achieved significant gains when he was leader of the Alliance in coalition, and he had argued for his policies at the cabinet table. That's what the Greens should do, not threaten to bring down the Government,'' he said. Alliance leader Laila Harre said she did not blame Miss Clark for calling an early election. It was becoming a daily embarrassment sitting there with a person (Mr Anderton) who had abandoned the party he had been elected to represent in Parliament but claimed to be the leader of,'' she said.

 That was enormously frustrating for me. It was clearly difficult for the prime minister to handle.''
 


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