ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

14 July 2002


The intense industry pressure exerted on New Zealand's officials and ministers as they struggled to decide what to do about the GE contaminated sweetcorn amounted to corporate blackmail, according to what is reported in the article below from New Zealand's 'Dominion Post' newspaper (item 2).

Minutes of a meeting of seed industry and Agriculture and Forestry Ministry (MAF) biosecurity officials in mid-November 2000 shows the officials were told that if they pursued their stated policy, of not allowing any GE contaminated seed into the country, the multinational seed companies would cut off the supply of seed to New Zealand:

"the issue was tabled by industry that a 100 percent enforcement of GM (genetically modified) contamination in seeds would destroy the New Zealand seed industry, in that seed companies would not ship seed to New Zealand if this was the case."

This kind of blackmail by multinational seed companies has been seen before. During judicial review of the first GE field trials in the Republic of Ireland in 1998, Novartis and Monsanto submitted a joint affidavit in which Novartis stated that if Ireland did not permit the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms the company might well cut off all its seed supplies (ie including non-GE), stating:

"it may well become uneconomic for Novartis to continue to supply traditional seed to the Irish market. Given the importance of Novartis on the Irish market, this would have serious implications for the Irish sugar beet industry."

It is Novartis (now part of the world's biggest biotech corporation, Syngenta) whose seed is at the heart of the New Zealand scandal. And according to the article below, this kind of corporate stranglehold over the seed supply had its effect on both government officials and New Zealand's regulatory authority, ERMA.

'At that meeting, on November 24, both MAF and the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) "agreed to be as pragmatic as possible". '

Just how important the seed contmaination issue is to Novartis/Syngenta in terms of its worldwide operations is suggested by a series of articles on the Mexican maize contamination issue that have noted how almost every published critic of Chapela and Quist's paper in Nature can be linked to Novartis/Syngenta funding issues, particularly the Syngenta/Berkeley deal.

A special investigation by New Scientist noted, for instance, how with the 2 letters critical of Chapela and Quist published in Nature:

'One was co-written by Freeling and Nick Kaplinsky who is also a senior figure at the same department at Berkeley [heavily funded by Novartis]. The other was by Matthew Metz, a former Berkeley microbiologist who was a vocal supporter of the Novartis alliance, and Johannes Futterer, a young Swiss researcher whose boss, Wilhelm Gruissem, was at Berkeley four years ago and was widely regarded as "the man who brought Novartis to Berkeley".'

When with the publication of those letters, Nature issued its editorial of retraction, Syngenta's head of regulatory affairs Willy De Greef commented,"Many people are going to need that (Nature's editorial) reference, not least those who, like me, will be in the frontline fights for biotech during the Hague negotiations [on biodiversity]".

Limiting restrictions on its corporate activities is clearly in the interests of Syngenta. The people of New Zealand, however, may feel their leadership should be guided by broader principles.

1. New Zealand PM accused of GM cover-up
2. Officials told zero tolerance would ruin industry


1. New Zealand PM accused of GM cover-up

By Kathy Marks in Sydney
The Observer (London), 14 July 2002

Allegations that New Zealand's Labour government covered up the illegal release of a large batch of genetically modified sweetcorn are threatening to harm its chances of re-election next week.

The issue of genetically modified crops has dominated the election campaign, with the Green Party doubling its support in opinion polls to more than 10 per cent after announcing a hard-line stance of banning all but laboratory trials of such crops.

The Labour Party, led by the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, appeared on course to win an outright majority in the general election on 27 July. But its standing may have been seriously damaged by last week's allegations, which appeared in a book, Seeds of Distrust, by an investigative author, Nicky Hager. According to Mr Hager, the government - which prides itself on having the world's toughest regulations on GM food - learned in November 2000 that 5.6 tons of sweetcorn imported from the US had been accidentally contaminated with GM seeds.

Rather than destroying the plants, half of which were already in the ground, it allowed them to be grown, harvested and processed into food products, he claimed. The public was not informed of the affair, which breached the government's own moratorium on the release of GM crops pending the outcome of a royal commission.

The allegations caused an uproar, with a furious Ms Clark lambasting one television interviewer who ambushed her about the book before she even knew of its existence. The main opposition National Party claimed the government's actions proved that Labour could not be trusted.

Ministers rejected the claims, saying that while initial tests on the corn suggested it was contaminated, subsequent tests proved negative. It was for that reason that the corn was not destroyed. It was unclear, however, whether the public understood the minutiae of the government's account of events, and opinion polls this week will establish the extent of the fall-out. Trustworthiness and reliability are the central planks of Ms Clark's re-election platform.

Colin James of the New Zealand Herald said: "The importance of this affair is not genetically modified food; the importance is credibility and trust. Does the Prime Minister tell lies? The seeds of doubt have been planted in many people's minds, and that's quite damaging."


2. Officials told zero tolerance would ruin industry

Dominion Post, 13 JULY 2002

Government officials confronted with the genetically engineered (GE) corn scare were told a total ban on imports of GE seeds would ruin the seed industry.

That prompted weeks of bitter debate over whether to tolerate a low level of GE contamination or stay with the legal requirement of zero tolerance, papers released today show.

Minutes of a meeting of seed industry and Agriculture and Forestry Ministry (MAF) biosecurity officials in mid-November 2000 showed companies lobbying for a GE tolerance level.

It took place two weeks after seeds imported from the United States tested positive to GE contamination, when both the Government and industry feared GE seeds had been planted.

"Intense discussion was generated and the issue was tabled by industry that a 100 percent enforcement of GM (genetically modified) contamination in seeds would destroy the New Zealand seed industry, in that seed companies would not ship seed to New Zealand if this was the case."

At that meeting, on November 24, both MAF and the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) "agreed to be as pragmatic as possible".

On November 29, a MAF paper on the implications of a very low tolerance - 0.1 percent - said there was a "high probability" that seed-producing nations in North America and Europe would be unable to meet it.

"It may not be in the major producing companies' (multi-national seed companies) best interests to go to extra trouble and expense to meet our entry requirements," the unnamed MAF official said.

An Environment Ministry paper also raised the issue of a threshold. Again it warned it was politically sensitive, as the $6.2 million Royal Commission on Genetic Modification was sitting at that time.

"For example, if it is decided that New Zealand will permit entry to seeds if those seeds are demonstrably contaminated with GM seeds at levels of less than 1 percent, but greater than zero, and those seeds are planted the consequence would be that NZ would be permitting some GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in the general environment," the paper said.

That would be contrary to the Government's stated objectives of preserving New Zealand's options, it said. It would also "limit" the commission's ability to recommend a future policy of excluding GMOs, or preventing their release, as they would already be present.

"A policy of zero tolerance at this stage would obviously leave more options open to the Royal Commission," it said. By November 30, a proposed interim standard of 0.5 percent had been drafted. "It is proposed that a tolerance of up to 0.5 percent contamination with GM material be permitted," it said.

Officials had already reasoned that a policy document would be required, and that someone "probably the Minister (Ms Hobbs) would have to make the decision".

By February 2001, after the crop had been cleared of contamination, a zero tolerance was in place, Erma board member Lindie Nelson told TVNZ last night.

Environment Ministry chief executive Barry Carbon said yesterday a group of people in the bureaucracy did advocate a legal "tolerance" of accidental genetic  contamination.

"If we had got to the stage of showing that this crop had some level of contamination, and if it had been interpreted on the basis of a tolerance level, I think we'd be in deep trouble," he said.

"We were lucky, in retrospect, that it didn't come to pass." [!!!]

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