ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

9 July 2002


1. Protesters gagged over trial botch-up
2. 'Too late' for GM soil test


1. Protesters gagged over trial botch-up,1008,1259955a11,FF.html
Sunday Star Times
SUNDAY, 07 JULY 2002
N A T I O N A L   N E W S   S T O R Y
07 July 2002

Government scientists signed a deal which bought the silence of GE-free campaigners over a botched plant trial in Northland.

The groups GE Free NZ and GE Free Northland were muzzled by the deal, in return for a clean-up of a tamarillo-testing area by HortResearch.

The deal followed criticism by the Royal Commission On Genetic Modification of the trial, carried out near Kerikeri.

Scientists at HortResearch publicly announced in October they would sterilise the tamarillo site with poisons after fears GE material had remained in the soil.

But the Sunday Star-Times has discovered they agreed to go ahead with the poisoning plan only after GE Free NZ signed an agreement to keep quiet.

In a copy of the agreement, obtained by the Star-Times, the scientists demanded GE Free NZ withdraw requests it had made to another agency for help in cleaning up the site.

They also wanted the group to stop making complaints and criticising the tamarillo trial in public.

The document stated: "GE Free (NZ) and GE Free Northland will not initiate any further criticism of HortResearch, concerning this trial, to the media or any other party."

Dr John Shaw, HortResearch science general manager, said the deal had been done to protect the reputation of the crown agency. "(Our concern) was the potential to bring the HortResearch name into disrepute. We felt pretty strongly about that."

The genetically engineered tamarillos were designed to be resistant to a virus, the presence of which affects export opportunities. The trial was approved before the new regulatory body came in, and faced less controls.

The commission found there were "justified" public fears about efforts made to contain the tamarillos and recognised concerns over horizontal gene transfer which can spread altered DNA between species.

The commission report instructed "all material associated with the trial must be removable from the site".

Shaw admitted tamarillo roots were still in the ground, adding HortResearch had never checked to see if genetically altered organisms had crossed into plants and soil. "We never tested it. Our belief was that there was no risk. The plants would have been pulled out and not all the root material would have come out.

"But what's the chance of it hopping from one little rootlet to another system? The risk of it is extremely low. It is never absent, but it is so low it is not a concern."

Zelka Grammer, from GE Free Northland in Food & Environment, said the deal was signed because farmers were eager to stop any potential spread of GE organisms. Plans to sterilise the ground never went ahead after soil scientists said the poison - chloropicrin - could actually help spread GE organisms.

The organisation now wanted funding to pay a group of independent scientists from New Zealand universities to test the soil.

"I think it's a cover-up, all right. They're involved and of course they are ducking for cover," Grammer said.

Dr Paul Hutchison, MP and national spokesman on crown research institutes, was critical of the deal and called for scientific tests on the soil to resolve the argument. "It sounds very, very scurrilous to me. I feel surprised that HortResearch would have done that."

Pete Hodgson, minister of crown research institutes, said he had no problem with HortResearch signing the deal.

"CRIs operate as commercial companies and they operate under the Companies Act. They are entitled to secure contracts within New Zealand."

Marian Hobbs, minister for the environment, said she would carry out a fresh inquiry into the tamarillo trial to discover if her office could assist.

- David Fisher


2. 'Too late' for GM soil test
New Zealand Herald

Environment Minister Marian Hobbs says it is "not possible" to make scientific checks on the soil at a Northland site where a Crown science company grew genetically modified tamarillos.

Ms Hobbs said yesterday that she had previously said there should be research into the effect of genetically modified organisms on soil.

"But that research should be properly planned and conducted on a scientifically sound basis.

"It is not possible to do such work at Kerikeri now," she said. "We needed to understand the soil make-up before the plantings, so we could compare it afterwards."

When a spokesman for the minister was asked how the lack of a baseline study stopped the Government from paying for a straightforward analysis of whether the engineered DNA sequence had spread into soil organisms, he said no such study was proposed.

Instead, the minister was saying it would not be possible to compare the "before and after" soil communities, he said.

Last October, National's spokesman on Crown research institutes, Paul Hutchison, asked Ms Hobbs to fund an analysis of the soil.

She told him she had received no request from HortResearch for soil analysis.

And it was too late to assess the state of soil organisms before the GM trial or whether there had been any "transient effects", she said then.

Dr Hutchison, the MP for Port Waikato, said yesterday that he had wanted Ms Hobbs to pay for an assessment of whether engineered DNA had spread into soil organisms or remained in the soil in plant roots.

But Ms Hobbs said the Environmental Risk Management Authority had concluded there appeared to be no need for testing the soil.

Several community groups critical of the experiment have over the past two years called for such tests, and Dr Hutchison said yesterday that the Government had condoned efforts by HortResearch to gag criticism of its genetically modified tamarillos.

HortResearch last year had agreed to fumigate its tamarillo test site on the condition that two groups of critics, GE-Free NZ and GE-Free Northland stop initiating criticism of HortResearch over the trial.

Ms Hobbs yesterday suggested that misgivings expressed last year by the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification over the GM tamarillo trial would not have arisen had it been conducted under present controls.

The commission last year told the Government that it had heard "considerable public doubt" about the adequacy of the containment of a field trial of transgenic tamarillos at HortResearch's Northland research station.

 HortResearch began research into GM tamarillos at Kerikeri in January 1998, to test whether tamarillo plants could be immunised against mosaic virus.

The plant resisted the virus - which has affected about 90 per cent of New Zealand's small tamarillo crop - and fruited well, and the experiment concluded in January last year.

The trial of 40 GM tamarillos covered about a third of the 0.2ha field and involved four rows of plants.

About half the plants in the middle rows were transgenic, while the rest were non-transgenic.

At the end of the trial the plants were pulled out and incinerated.

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