SCANDAL AND STRIFE OVER MAJOR GE RELEASE COVER UP
JOKE OF THE WEEK: NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, following Green Party complaints about her collusion with Novartis and others in a massive GE contamination cover up, says "it would now be very difficult to rebuild [her] trust" in her former coalition partners.
COLLUSION: "...on November 30, the Ministry for the Environment sent the companies and their PR firms a draft contingency plan of what the Government would say if news of the contamination leaked out. Their views were sought on the draft government statement. Their interests (especially Novartis‚ international agenda of minimising controls on seed imports) were obviously not the same as the public interest. Yet they were being included in forming the advice going from the environment, biosecurity and risk management agencies to Government." - Nicky Hager, 'Seeds of Distrust'
2 items via the New Zealand Herald website, www.nzherald.co.nz
1. Scandal and strife on the campaign trail
2. Book says NZ suffered major accidental release of GE sweetcorn
Scandal and strife on the campaign trail [shortened]
10 July 2002
A coalition between Labour and the Greens was even less likely today after the election campaign took a nasty turn into brutal political territory.
Prime Minister Helen Clark's searing attack on the Greens burnt off the remnants of cordiality between the two parties amid claims the Government covered up an accidental release of genetically engineered corn.
The potentially damaging scandal threatened to derail Labour's campaign and a furious Miss Clark said the Government "utterly rejected" the allegations in Nicky Hager's book, Seeds of Distrust, published today.
The Greens said they were shocked and horrified by the disclosure and questioned the Government's honesty, which brought the ultimate insult from Miss Clark - they were as bad as the National Party.
"I am sickened by the dirt in the campaign and I am sickened by the fact that the Greens have joined the National Party in such an approach," she said.
"I expected the dirt from the National Party and there has been a ton of it - I didn't expect it from these people."
She said it would now be very difficult to rebuild trust, which seemed to dash the Greens' hope of being part of the next government.
The row broke out as Miss Clark was still fighting off National's claims that she did not co-operate fully with the police when they investigated "paintergate", and the genetic engineering (GE) cover-up allegation played into the Opposition's hands.
Party leader Bill English said she should front up over "her role" in the affair.
"Helen Clark campaigns on trust, but yet again people's faith in her has been broken," he said.
2. Book says NZ suffered major accidental release of GE sweetcorn
New Zealand suffered a major accidental release of genetically engineered (GE) sweetcorn in 2000, says a new book published today.
Author Nicky Hager said in the book, Seeds of Distrust, that the Government was told in November 2000 that a 5.6 tonne consignment of sweetcorn seeds from the United States had been found to be contaminated with GE sweetcorn seeds.
But by the time Prime Minister Helen Clark and Environment Minister Marian Hobbs were told, thousands of GE sweetcorn plants were already growing in Gisborne, Hawke's Bay and Marlborough, Mr Hager said.
The release of New Zealand-grown GE-contaminated sweetcorn has not been previously disclosed.
Hager said that when government leaders were told of the contamination, over half the seed was still waiting to be planted, including 1000kg supplied to a wholesaler in Timaru.
He alleged government officials prepared a special regulation, to provide necessary powers to order destruction of the crops, but at a later point the crops were left to grow and approval was given for the rest of the seed to be planted.
According to the book, at least five tonnes of GE corn -- the equivalent of 100,000 cans -- was processed as part of the much larger harvest of conventional corn.
Almost all the crops were in Gisborne and Hawke's Bay.
Today's revelations are sure to cause more tension between Labour and its potential coalition partner the Greens.
Already the GE issue has resulted in harsh exchanges between the parties.
The Green Party has based its election campaign on a commitment to have a GE-free New Zealand and has enjoyed rising support in the polls as a result of that stance.
It has said it would support a Labour-led government as long as the GE moratorium, due to be lifted next October, was in place but would not support any government that lifted it.
Prime Minister Helen Clark has repeatedly said the Government would not be held to ransom over GE by a single issue party.
Greens co-leader Jeannette Fitzsimons this morning said she was feeling "shell-shocked" following Hager's revelations.
"I haven't seen the book, let alone the documents that it's based on, but from what I've heard this morning, I'm very, very distressed at the extent of what seems to have been a massive cover-up," she told National Radio.
The book's publisher, Craig Potton, is number 22 on the Greens list but Ms Fitzsimons said that did not mean the book or its launch timing, 2-1/2 weeks out from the election, was politically motivated.
"Craig Potton has not breathed a word to us that this was coming out. Craig has published a great many books. He happens to be a publisher, that's what he does as his livelihood and he and Nicky have worked closely together over a number of books," she said.
"People have political affiliations and they have jobs, so I don't really see any connection there."
Companies involved in the harvest included Heinz Wattie, Talley, and Cedenco, according to the book.
The accidental planting of GE-contaminated seed took place at the time of a voluntary national moratorium on genetically engineered crops and animals, in the course of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.
Hager said today the GE seeds were in a shipment of conventional sweetcorn seed. When the importer, Gisborne company Cedenco, had the seeds tested, it discovered they were contaminated with GE seeds.
"Spread among all the normal sweetcorn seeds there was a certain proportion ... which were genetically engineered sweetcorn plants that had somehow got mixed in the United States into it," he said.
NZPA has asked Miss Clark, Research and Science and Technology Minister Pete Hodgson and Environment Minister Marian Hobbs for comment on the allegations but none of them has been available this morning.
There had been two estimates by government scientists of the level of contamination, Hager said. One was 15,000 seeds and the other 30,000.
By the time Cedenco made the discovery, nearly half the sweetcorn had been planted out around Gisborne, in Hawke's Bay and in part of Marlborough, and there was another large batch in the South Island.
At the time the law said that a company could not knowingly import GE organisms without approval from the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma), and Cedenco had not knowingly brought in GE seed.
But Hager said the discovery left it in a difficult position, because to keep it in the ground meant it knowingly possessed a GE organism which had not been approved.
Cedenco contacted the multinational seed company Novartis, in Melbourne, which tracked down the other customers who had used seed from the batch.
The book says the Green Party was consulted on the issue late in 2000, when they wanted to change the rules on GE to allow for 0.5 per cent contamination.
But Ms Fitzsimons said there was "nothing you could call a consultation".
"I was informed by (Environment Minister) Marian (Hobbs) after all the decisions were made. I had no idea of what had gone on beforehand. I certainly had no idea that this political decision was made at a time that there was still the opportunity to stop corn being planted in the ground, let alone to pull up what was already there."
Ms Fitzsimons' co-leader, Rod Donald, said he was "shattered", and having difficulty comprehending what had happened.
However, he was optimistic the crop could be contained and said his party would demand the Government test the areas in which the crops were planted, trace the corn and compensate neighbouring farmers, especially organic farmers.
"That obviously concerns us, that there were anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 contaminated plants grown in New Zealand but what really shatters me is that they were knowingly allowed to grow and be harvested and be consumed," he said.
Subsequent testing on the shipment by a senior Erma scientist, Donald Hannah, suggested the GE seed was unevenly spread throughout the shipment but overall was about 0.04 per cent -- or about 15,000 plants.
Later estimates by other Erma staff suggested it was more likely that up to 30,000 GE corn plants could be growing across the country.
While that may seem a relatively small proportion of the entire crop, when Erma had approved an unrelated field trial of GE corn 12 months before (which was never carried out), it was restricted to only 1450 plants on 0.4ha.
All these plants had to be covered so their pollen would not spread, had to be kept 400m away from other corn crops and had to be carefully destroyed after the experiment.
Agricultural officials announced in May the Government was looking at testing only a couple of species of imported seed -- including sweetcorn -- for contamination by genetically engineered (GE) varieties, and only every third consignment in those species.
The proposed new testing rules followed the scare over GE seed contamination 20 months ago, when initial testing suggested there might be minute traces of GE content in corn seed. Ms Hobbs later announced "a more detailed evaluation" concluded that, if present at all, the GE material was at levels below that which could be reliably detected".
Ms Hobbs announced in December 2000 the Government would put in place border checks for genetically engineered seed in shipments of imported crop seeds.
She said it was impossible to assure zero risk of contamination without banning all seed imports from all of the countries currently growing GE crops, which would include many major trading partners. Instead, the Government planned on tolerating a low level of accidental contamination, such as 0.5 per cent in shipments of maize and sweetcorn seed.
New Zealand's cropping farmers import 186 tonnes of sweetcorn seed each year, of which 161 tonnes comes from the United States.
From August 1 last year, the Government has required all consignments of imported sweetcorn seed to be tested for the presence of GE seeds. Since then, 56,338kg of seed had been imported in 25 consignments, about two-thirds from the United States. Most shipments (17 containing 54,492kg) were tested offshore, and eight (1846kg) at the border.
One of these, 2.7kg from the United States, tested positive in January and were incinerated. Two other shipments totalling 4kg were destroyed when the importers were not prepared to pay the cost of GE testing.
MAF director-general Murray Sherwin has said if New Zealand implements MAF's proposed tests, it would be one of the first countries to adopt a regulation for systematically screening imported seeds for the presence of GE seeds.
There was no international consensus on an approach, nor any standardised tests or audit mechanisms.
"Even with one of the world's best biosecurity regimes, nothing can provide 100 per cent guarantees," according to Mr Sherwin.
DNA testing was extremely sensitive but could not confidently detect GE seeds below about 0.1 per cent (one seed in a thousand).
National leader Bill English said Prime Minister Helen Clark should explain why her Government had tried to "cover up its incompetence instead of explaining to the public what happened".
"What we have here is incompetence. Labour simply made the wrong decision about how to handle this environmental risk and then appeared to have set out to cover it up," Mr English told NZPA.
Mr English has previously accused the Government of arrogance and said today's revelations confirmed his belief.
"It looks like a pattern of behaviour ... first she makes the wrong decision and then sets out to cover it up. This one is one the public do regard as significant."
Miss Clark's spokesman said today she would not be available for comment and the issue would be fronted by Ms Hobbs.
Miss Clark is campaigning in New Plymouth and Whangarei today.
Ms Hobbs was in a briefing and Miss Clark's office said she would comment
once the briefing was completed.
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