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2-Plants: More about suspected GE contamination of New Zealand sweet corn

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TITLE:  The seeds of dissension
SOURCE: The New Zealand Herald, by Andrew Laxon
DATE:   July 13, 2002

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The seeds of dissension

Allister Holmes casts an eye over the shrivelled organic maize cobs that 
lie drying in his paddock beneath the Gisborne sun. A "Proud to be GE Free" 
sign greets visitors to his 23 ha property, tucked beneath the hills 
encircling the Poverty Bay flats. Chickens roam freely along the drive, and 
the smell of fresh grass mingled with sheep droppings fills the winter air. 
You might expect this 32-year-old organic farmer - who grows squash, 
barley, soybeans, fruit and until recently sweetcorn - to be deeply 
concerned about a book which claims genetically modified corn was grown in 
his neighbourhood.

But Holmes has also seen life from the other side of the commercial fence. 
Until December he worked as an agronomist (a scientist specialising in soil 
management and crop production) for Cedenco, the company which ran GM tests 
on the corn seeds at the centre of Nicky Hager's book Seeds of Distrust. 
Holmes still thinks Cedenco should have told its own growers, who were kept 
in the dark. But in the end he is convinced the scare was groundless "I 
obviously have huge concerns about GE," he says. "But there was no GE 
material planted from this."

If Holmes is right, it's hard to know who will be more relieved - other 
local growers or the Government, which for three days has scrambled to 
respond to Hager's allegations of misinformation and cover-up at the 
highest levels of the bureaucracy and Cabinet.

At times the furious response from Prime Minister Helen Clark and the 
story's political implications have threatened to drown out what Hager 
claimed in the first place. Most officials concede that his facts seem to 
be correct - but they argue that his conspiracy interpretation is wrong.

The story began when a 5.6-tonne shipment of sweetcorn seed arrived in New 
Zealand on October 10, 2000.

Hager says the 40 million seeds - about 7 per cent of New Zealand's annual 
sweetcorn crop - had been harvested several weeks earlier in the Snake 
River region of southern Idaho in the the United States. The seed 
manufacturer, Novartis, routinely tested its seeds for contamination, 
because about 40 per cent of US corn is genetically modified. This corn, 
Lot NC9114, tested negative on August 8. The seeds were supplied to three 
companies - Heinz Wattie, Cedenco and Talley's - for immediate planting and 
to South Canterbury distributor Seed Production (NZ).

By the beginning of November, 93.7ha were planted in Gisborne, 27.7ha in 
Hawkes Bay and 57ha in Marlborough. A further 1000kg sat in Seed 
Production's warehouse in Timaru, ready for sale to local sweetcorn 
farmers. Cedenco wanted to sell the crop as GM-free dried corn powder to 
Japan, so it asked Crop and Food Research at Lincoln to test a sample. On 
November 1 the results came back, unexpectedly showing GM contamination. 
Hager says Cedenco retested its batch in New Zealand, Australia and the US 
and got more positive results.

Helen Clark's first response on November 24 was that the plants must be 
pulled up and destroyed. On the same day, Bas Walker, head of the 
Environment Risk Management Authority (ERMA), which controls GM trials, 
reported to Biosecurity Minister Marian Hobbs: "Bear in mind that in this 
case, there are already several positive tests for contamination which can 
hardly be ignored."

But Hager claims the Government's line began to change as public relations 
experts acting for the four companies held two meetings with officials from 
Crop and Food Research, ERMA and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry 

At the first meeting, on November 24, the companies - which urged that any 
press releases use the word "maize" not "sweetcorn" to avoid a food scare - 
argued that accidental releases of GM seeds were inevitable and New Zealand 
should adopt "US standards", allowing a small threshold level of up to 1 
per cent contamination, which would make the GM corn legal.

Hager says that at a second meeting, on November 29, Novartis PR woman 
Norrey Simmons - whose firm Communications Trumps had advised secrecy over 
possible deformities in GM salmon - urged no public disclosure and the 
adoption of a US-type threshold allowing some GM contamination. The Weekend 
Herald has been unable to contact Simmons.

Hager says officials obliged by recommending a 0.5 threshold a few days 
later, and suddenly the politics shifted. "The issue was not whether or not 
there was contamination, but whether it was below the newly adopted 
threshold and could be ignored."

ERMA's manager of science and research, Donald Hannah, reanalysed the test 
results and estimated the overall level of contamination at 0.04 per cent. 
Based on the new 0.5 per cent threshold, they were by definition "GM-free" 
and did not have to be destroyed.

Hager argues that this threshold was self-serving and ridiculous, because 
scientists were able to test samples fairly confidently down to 0.1 per 
cent. In explanation, he quotes from a "confidential paper" dated November 
30, 2000, which suggests setting the threshold at "a practical level that 
the major seed producing nations - 'read the US,' adds Hager - can meet".

A 0.1 per cent threshold would probably prove too difficult for these 
countries, which might pull out of New Zealand if they found our rules too 
time consuming and expensive.

There was some opposition. In January last year, ERMA members Dr Lindie 
Nelson, an agricultural economics specialist, and Dr Oliver Sutherland, 
then deputy chairman, wrote a scathing confidential memo to their 
colleagues, outlining their concerns.

"The agreed approach is a de facto decision to allow the release of grain 
with a maximum of 0.5 per cent GM content," they warned. "It is a very 
significant step. Our calculations suggest that for maize and sweetcorn, 
this could translate to releasing up to 13.3 million GM plants per year 
through NZ planting areas."

Nelson and Sutherland expressed concern at the sidelining of ERMA, which 
was supposed to make these decisions, the lack of analysis to support a 0.5 
per cent threshold when testing was reliable to 0.1 per cent, and the idea 
that this level of contamination could be construed as GM-free.

No one seemed to have considered the voluntary moratorium on GM releases 
either, they added. Both found it ironic that when ERMA agonised over the 
risks of very small pollen escapes in GM field trials, the Cabinet was 
showing far less caution.

They finished with a series of questions. Should the corn stay in the 
ground? Should ERMA step in? Should the public be told?

"Why," asks Hager, "were these sorts of concerns and options not being 
raised by officials or ministers?"

They were raised one more time, says his book: as late as February last 
year, ERMA's Bas Walker wrote an urgent letter to Acting Environment 
Minister Pete Hodgson.

Walker was worried that the Government's briefing paper to the Royal 
Commission on GM said the new 0.5 per cent threshold did not represent any 
change in policy.

"This statement could be seen as misleading," he wrote. "There is no way 
that [the 0.5 per cent threshold] can be construed as simply a continuation 
of existing policy. It presents a shift in policy, which will probably 
require legislative change to formalise."

Despite his letter, the paper was sent to the commission unaltered. The 
rest of the book says the decision was slipped through the Cabinet and the 
Greens were duped into agreeing. The so-called safe new standards were 
buried in a harmless-looking news release in the week before Christmas, 
with the most contentious points missing or heavily downplayed.

Yet in May this year, when the crisis had died away, Hager says MAF 
rejected the threshold option and called for a return to zero tolerance. 
"It is hard to escape the conclusion that the 'inevitabilities', the 'only 
practical options' and 'limits of testing' had all been excuses to justify 
why nothing needed to be done about the GE-contaminated sweetcorn crops."

Hager's slim, 156-page book dropped like a bombshell on the election 
campaign on Wednesday morning.

When Labour responded six hours later at a hastily convened press 
conference at Auckland's Sheraton Hotel, Clark concentrated on accusing the 
Greens of dirty politics.

The tactic worked - news coverage was dominated by the book's effect on the 
campaign and a possible Labour-Green coalition after the election, rather 
than Hager's allegations and whether they were true.

But in the next 24 hours the Government was forced to confront the claims 
in more detail. Officials from almost every agency involved were rounded up 
for a press conference on Thursday and ordered at the point of a microphone 
to answer reporters' questions honestly.

Gradually, two main points emerged which appeared to blow huge holes in 
Hager's conspiracy theory.

First, the Government said, there was no GM contamination of the corn. One 
of the eight samples originally tested came up positive, but only for one 
of the two genetic markers required for evidence that DNA had been 
transferred from another organism.

Officials explained that it was hard to find the DNA itself, so scientists 
look for the promoter, which starts the process, and the terminator, which 
ends it. In this case, the promoter is the cauliflower mosaic virus and the 
terminator is a common form of soil bacteria called agrobacterium.

When both appear together, scientists assume GM. If they find only one, 
they assume there is no GM, but retest to make sure.

The Government says the tests never found both markers together. The 
original test found the soil bacterium in one sample, and Cedenco's retests 
in Melbourne found it in three. Officials now stress that the test can be 
unreliable - a control sample of local non-GM seed gave a false positive 
when first tested.

The reliability of the original positive reading, which sparked the whole 
scare, took a further knock on Thursday. The seed contained talcum powder, 
which farmers use to make it flow smoothly through the planting drill.

This indicated that the sample had been used and returned. It was probably 
contaminated with soil, which explained why it tested positive for the soil 
bacterium but not the virus. Genetic scientist Dr Russell Poulter called it 
"the missing piece of the puzzle".

The second counterattack focused on Hager's claims that the Government 
secretly set a new 0.5 per cent threshold, which allowed the plants to stay 
and new GM-contaminated products to enter the country.

Not true, said ministers and officials. It was all a huge misunderstanding 
in the bureaucracy when "the shit hit the fan" - to quote the Environment 
Ministry's new Australian boss, Barry Carbon - over the positive test 

The Government now says there never was a threshold allowing a certain 
amount of GM material into the country. Officials and scientists were 
trying to set a standard for tests, which would allow them to say they were 
99 per cent sure any contamination was less than 0.5 per cent.

The figure was based on the technical limits of the technology. A lower 
figure of 0.1 per cent was supposedly rejected as theoretically achievable 
but not good enough in practice to support possible prosecutions.

The Government's later decision to switch to a 0.1 per cent standard 
starting from next month is explained as the result of improved testing 

Yet MAF had warned the Government that it was breaking its own law with 
this approach as early as May last year.

Confused? Even the top bureaucrats still have a hard time explaining this 
one. ERMA's Walker admits he was one of the officials who "misunderstood" 
what the threshold meant at first.

But he says his warning letter to Hodgson about misleading the Royal 
Commission was not about allowing GM into the country, as Hager claims. It 
was about the introduction of a new standard - an important policy change, 
which he believed should be conveyed to the commission.

Walker says Sutherland and Nelson did not know all the facts when they 
wrote their memo and were satisfied when they were given the full 
explanation. The Weekend Herald has been unable to contact Sutherland.

There were other signs this week that not all officials are "singing from 
the same songsheet", as Hager puts it in his book. Carbon poured cold water 
over the official line - repeated by everyone else from Science Minister 
Hodgson down - that the only way to guarantee absolute zero contamination 
is to destroy every seed.

"Well, I think that's a cop-out," he told Thursday's press conference. 
"Everybody all over the world takes measurements, and their scientists at 
the end of it put their reputation on the line and say, 'Hey, we have done 
as good a job as is reasonable and we've decided this is or is not 

Hager claims to be unfazed by the political and media backlash casting 
doubt on the two main contentions of his book. He argues that the 
Government is deliberately trying to obscure the timing of its reaction to 
the tests, which is crucial.

He says officials, including Walker, have claimed the Government saw the 
positive results, was concerned and ordered retests in Melbourne and other 

In fact, he says, the retest results were already in when Walker and others 
began talking about "several positive tests for contamination which can 
hardly be ignored".

There were no new tests after that, says Hager. The only thing that changed 
was the Government's attitude to the results.

* Yesterday the Government was due to release all the papers involved in 
the saga. This had not occurred by the time this section of the Herald went 
to press.

Additional reporting: Jo-Marie Brown, Anne Beston.


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