Gov't Coverup of GE Sweetcorn
Contamination Rocks NZ
June 10, 2002
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

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

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

"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

"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

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

"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

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

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.

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

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.

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