ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

11 July 2002


'For an extraordinary seven hours today, in the middle of an election campaign, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark refused to answer journalists' questions on her government's coverup of the illegal release of over 15,000 genetically engineered corn plants.'

1. NZ Government Gene Contamination Coverup Exposed
2. 'Seeds Of Distrust' Author Replies To Government Denials
3. more article urls


1. NZ Government Gene Contamination Coverup Exposed

By Bob Burton

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, July 10, 2002 (ENS) - For an extraordinary seven hours today, in the middle of an election campaign, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark refused to answer journalists' questions on her government's coverup of the illegal release of over 15,000 genetically engineered corn plants.

New Zealand investigative journalist Nicky Hager revealed the illegality and its coverup in his book "Seeds of Distrust" released early this morning.

The government discovered in November 2000 that a 5.6 tonne consignment of sweet corn seeds imported from Novartis in the United States was contaminated with genetically engineered seeds.

Based on leaked Cabinet papers and other government documents, Hager's book shows that when government ministers were first informed of the problem, about half the contaminated seeds had been planted. The remainder were in storage.

Instead of destroying the crop, the government responded to lobbying from industry groups and Novartis to allow the unauthorized seedlings to be grown, harvested and processed into food products. The stored seed was also approved for use rather than destroyed.

The revelations are likely to affect the ability of Clark's Labor Government to win a majority of seats in the July 27 election and thus be able to form a new government. The New Zealand election campaign has been dominated by controversies over genetically engineered crops and the credibility of Clark.

Under New Zealand's Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, any release of genetically modified organisms requires approval from the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA).

After she was informed in mid-November 2000 that genetically contaminated crops were being grown, Clark initially favored the option that the plants to be removed and the remaining seed destroyed.

But before the plants could be removed, a major lobbying campaign led by the public relations lobbyist for Novartis, by then merged with AstraZeneca and known as Sygenta, persuaded the government to backtrack.

At a meeting in late November, Sygenta and other affected companies proposed the adoption of a policy that would allow a threshold level of 0.5 percent contamination of crops with genetically modified organisms to be deemed acceptable.

In December 2000, the Clark Government agreed to adopt the 0.5 percent threshold. The basis of the policy change was that the test results on the batch of contaminated seeds were "inconclusive," a claim contradicted by the leaked internal documents. "Some GM [genetically modified] maize seed has been released in New Zealand," one Ministry for the Environment document stated.

While the level of contamination detected varied according to the test techniques and sample sizes of the different laboratories that conducted tests, the existence of genetic contamination in the corn was indisputable.

Complicating the government's public relations dilemma is the existence of the government appointed Royal Commission into Genetic Modification. While the Royal Commission was conducting its investigation between May 2000 and July 2001, the government agreed to a moratorium on the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment.

The government's secret approval for allowing the contaminated crops to grow and pollinate breached the moratorium.

At the time of the contamination crisis, the Royal Commission was holding public hearings, oblivious to the concern amongst government scientists that between 15,000 and 30,000 genetically modified corn plants were being illegally grown in three New Zealand farming districts.

Rather than inform the Royal Commission at the time, the government withheld a formal submission that obliquely referred to the contamination problem until the last week of hearings in February 2001. The letter from the government to the Royal Commission claimed tests "could not confirm whether or not GM material was present."

But the day before the Cabinet subcommittee finalized this letter, ERMA Chief Executive Bas Walker wrote to the government minister coordinating the statement, then Environment Minister Pete Hodgson, stating his concern that the Royal Commission would be misled.

"There is no way that [the 0.5 percent contamination allowance] can be construed as simply a continuation of existing policy. It presents a shift in policy, which (in my opinion) will probably require legislative change to formalize," Walker wrote.

Walker's concerns were ignored and the government's submission went unchallenged by the Royal Commission.

The explosive revelations could not have come at a worse time for the Labor Government. Ever since Clark called the election in mid-June, its electoral standing has plummeted. Government hopes that it could win an outright majority of seats in the 120 member Parliament are rapidly disappearing.

With an absolute majority, Clark would be able to push legislation through the single house Parliament without the support of the Green Party. But now with the controversy over genetically engineered crops raging, support for the Green Party has surged from the five percent it garnered at the 1999 election to over 10 percent.

Under New Zealand's proportional representation system, the Green Party looks set to increase their representation from their current seven seats to at least 13 seats.

After seven hours of silence from the government following the book's release, Environment Minister Marian Hobbs finally issued a media statement. "For the government there are no acceptable levels of GM contamination," she declared.

Hobbs denied there was any genetic contamination in the batch of Novartis corn, despite the evidence contained in the government's own internal documents reproduced in full as appendices to Hager's "Seeds of Distrust."

"There was no evidence of GM contamination in the corn seed," she claimed. Hobbs' spokesman, however, confirmed that there was contamination but claimed it was below the threshold. Nor did he dispute that the published internal documents referred to genetic contamination. "I haven't read all of the book," he told ENS.

Finally, late in the day, Clark broke her self-imposed media silence. Spending little time on the substance of the book, she went on the attack. "This is dirt without precedent, the dirt is now not confined to the National Party, it has spread to elements of the green movement," she said at a hastily convened media conference.

It is an argument Hager does not buy. "Under New Zealand law, even one genetically engineered plant - once known about - was illegal and should have been dealt with. What is the point of an agency like ERMA," he asks, "if the government simply bypasses it when it feels like it?"

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2002. All Rights Reserved.


"Seeds Of Distrust" Author Replies To Government Denials

News release 11 July 2002
From Nicky Hager - Researcher
"Seeds of Distrust" author, Nicky Hager, says that the Government seems to be trying to create confusion over the contaminated sweet corn story instead of actually refuting the evidence in the book.

"Ministers have replied that the GE test results were inconclusive, Pete Hodgson has suggested there are additional test results that change the picture and the Prime Minister has said there was no contamination at all. These arguments deserve response, or the public will be justified in being confused by the conflicting versions of events. Although the science can be made to sound complex and confusing, the issues are quite straight forward."

"First, the tests. I was told only two rounds of tests occurred. There were initial tests by Cedenco (which first alerted the company and authorities to the contamination), and then all four companies that had parts of the contaminated seed batch ran tests on them. Heinz Wattie, Talley’s and Seed Production did not supply their test results to the government authorities. Cedenco supplied its additional test results to MAF and ERMA and it is these results that were written up in my book. I assume that these are also the results that Pete Hodgson is now talking about. The Government had received these results by 24 November 2000. As far as I know, there were no more tests after this."

"The central issue is that, in the weeks after these results arrived, a series of official reports (quoted and reprinted in the book) all stated plainly that there was contamination. That was the advice going to Ministers and it was being treated as a very serious issue. If, as the Ministers are now saying, they later came to have doubts about the certainty of the test results, why did they not simply request that the tests be rerun? That is what you do when there is scientific doubt."

"Instead, as far as I know, there were no new tests. Yet the main government scientist involved in the issue at the time wrote, in his 8 December report on the corn, that if there was any doubt the standard procedure was to rerun the tests until consistent results were achieved. I believe that the reason they did not rerun the tests was because the existence of contamination was not really doubted."

"Also, I am not certain about this point, but it appears that the government authorities never ran their own tests of the seeds. All the test results considered seem to have come from the companies. Leaving aside the fact that it by-passed the proper ways of making decisions about GE organisms in New Zealand, if the Government was serious about being strict and cautious about genetic engineering, why did it not run its own tests and, if necessary, rerun the tests until it was certain?"

"Second, the Prime Minister said baldly that there was no contamination. However, nowhere in any of the internal official documents, did anyone ever claim that. I reprinted the main Cabinet paper on the issue. Although the Cabinet paper did everything it could to play down the issue, it told Ministers that a new regime had been introduced permitting GE seed contamination under 0.5% and then wrote:

"’Information on present sweet corn seed imports is that, against these parameters, there is no reliable evidence for concern about GM contamination.’

"The key words are ‘against these parameters’. In other words, the contamination level was under 0.5% and therefore being regarded as acceptable."

"Helen Clark, interviewed by TV3 on Tuesday night, repeatedly made this point. She said that the Government had found that the contamination was below the set level and therefore it was OK. This is not the same as no contamination. It was indeed a ‘low’ level of contamination and below the arbitrary level the Government introduced after the crops were discovered - but even the conservatively low estimate made by the government’s science advisor amounted to about 15,000 GE sweet corn plants."

"I stand by all the information in the book."


3. more articles:

Biosecurity slip casts doubt on GM watchdog

Clark in fury at GM ambush

[includes a telling picture of Clark and her science minister]

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