GE contamination of corn seed grown in NZ
Nicky Hager's press statement on the Seeds of Distrust
Prime Minister Helen Clark and a few key Ministers of the Labour-Alliance Government kept a large accidental release of genetically engineered (GE) sweet corn plants secret and allowed them to be grown, harvested and sold to New Zealanders and export markets. The detailed story of GE contaminated sweet corn crops, and subsequent efforts to hide the story from the public, most of Cabinet and the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, is revealed today with the release of Nicky Hager's new book, 'Seeds of Distrust'.
The book documents how in November 2000, in the middle of the Royal Commission, the Government learned that a 5.6 tonne consignment of sweet corn seeds from the United States had been found to be contaminated with GE sweet corn seeds. By the time Helen Clark and Environment Minister Marian Hobbs were told, thousands of GE sweet corn plants were growing in three regions of New Zealand - Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Blenheim - and over half the seeds were still due to be planted that season (including 1000kg supplied to a seed supplier in Timaru).
While Hobbs was designated 'lead Minister', Helen Clark took control of the issue and moved hour-by-hour management of the issue into the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Strict secrecy was imposed.
Initially Clark instructed that, whatever the precise actions taken, her 'bottom line' was that the contaminated crops must be pulled out. Officials began urgent work to draft a special regulation, passed by Cabinet soon after, to provide the necessary powers to order destruction of the crops. They made preparations for a public announcement about the crops and the actions being taken to remove them.
Then two things happened. First, concerted business lobbying began, led by Norrey Simmons of the PR company Communications Trumps, who represented the multinational seed company, Novartis. She and other PR representatives (Heinz Wattie, Talley's and Cedenco had planted the seeds) were regularly consulted during the decision making. At the same time, the Ministers involved realised that, contrary to what they had expected, the story had not leaked to the news media. The option of hushing it up presented itself.
Helen Clark reversed her earlier bottom line. The option of destroying the crops was dropped, the sweet corn was left to grow and approval was given for the rest of the seeds to be planted out. At least 5 tonnes of pure GE corn was processed (the equivalent of about 10,000 cans of corn) as part of (and mixed into) the harvest of conventional corn. Although most the crops were in Gisborne and Hawkes Bay, Maori concerns over GE food did not feature in decision making. The Ministers and officials involved began an elaborate process of covering up the story. The stages and methods used in the cover-up are the subject of the book.
Nicky Hager says that
"although the context is a story about genetic engineering, this is primarily a book about government and democracy. The story shows what happens when leaders try to control controversial issues using secrecy, PR and political management.
"My last book, before the 1999 election, was about a National Government that had become complacent and arrogant in the way it treated the public and constitutional processes. This book is about the present Government being at risk of going the same way.
"The book is relevant to current debates about the reliability and trustworthiness of the processes controlling genetic engineering. In this story, the largest known release of genetically engineered plants into the New Zealand environment, the Government did not even refer the issue to the Ennvironmental Risk Management Authority. The laws and processes for handling GE organisms, the ones we are told are very strict and cautious, were simply by-passed. Instead the Government made ad hoc policy decisions that ignored entirely the laws and proper procedures."
The key Ministers who have been reassuring the public over the strict, precautionary processes in place for genetic engineering, all know about the contaminated sweet corn case. Not only did they make the decisions, they actively misled the Royal Commission about the incident, possibly contributing to the Royal Commission's conclusion that existing safeguards are reliable.
There were two main arguments used within government to justify the sweet corn decision at the time. Both were put to the Government by the companies involved. The first was that GE seed contamination was 'inevitable', and that New Zealand should be a 'world-leader' in setting 'acceptable' levels of contamination. The Government did this, agreeing any contamination of less than 0.5% content of GE seeds in crops would be allowed - a policy which was immediately used to retrospectively 'deem' the contaminated crops as being 'GE free' so they could be left in the ground.
Significantly, as soon as the contaminated sweet corn incident was safely in the past, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry reviewed this policy (in May 2002) and concluded that GE seed contamination was not inevitable and that there should be 'zero tolerance' of GE contamination. The report argued: [An] option being discussed internationally is to allow the unintended presence of low levels of GM seeds below a certain threshold. This approach is not feasible because it would allow GM seeds to enter New Zealand even if they were detected, if they were at levels below the threshold. This would undermine the approval process for GM organisms. Yet when it was pragmatic for 'solving' the sweet corn crisis, precisely this threshold system had been adopted.
The other argument used to justify the decisions was that, although there had been several positive results showing GE seeds in the batch of Novartis seeds, a 'further detailed assessment' suggested that there was no reliably detectable contamination present. However, Nicky Hager was shown a copy of the 'detailed assessment' that was done. All that the government scientist had been asked to check was whether the contamination results were under the newly adopted 0.5% threshold. He did not say there was no contamination nor that it was not reliably detectable. Moreover, he pointed out that if there was any doubt, the tests could just be rerun. But no follow up testing was done.
The scientist's conservative estimate was 0.04% contamination, amounting to about 15,000 GE sweet corn plants in the environment. When his results were subsequently reviewed by two members of the ERMA board (in a highly critical report about the sweet corn decisions that Nicky Hager obtained for the book), they estimated that the number of GE sweet corn plants was more likely to be about 30,000.
The contaminated crops were quietly processed and sold to the public during the year 2001. The same 'tolerable GE contamination' policy applied for the 2001-2002 growing season, so questions remain over the GE content of this year's corn crops. Although one shipment of corn for poultry feed was rejected as being above the 0.5% threshhold, and one small (2.7kg) sweet corn seed parcel was rejected, it is not known if other batches with contamination were detected but allowed in because of the arbitrary 0.5% threshold.
Nicky Hager says that the book raises three issues.
- "First is the importance of the public being able to trust decision-makers in contentious issues like genetic engineering. Helen Clark has spoken of the importance of 'honesty, openness and integrity' underpinning New Zealand's reputation for trustworthy food production. As the book asks, Why should New Zealanders trust government and company assurances about a new technology like genetic engineering if, when something goes wrong, it is cleverly hushed up?
- "The second issue is that government secrecy and PR tactics serve private lobbyists well but undermine democratic government.
- "The third concerns the constant ridicule of critics of GE we are witnessing in the news media. This needs to be recognised for what it is: a PR tactic orchestrated by GE interests. The Government and GE interests cannot silence potential critical voices and cover up things that go wrong and then claim that public suspicion about genetic engineering is irrational."
"When I stumbled across the story and began to research and write it, the issues of genetic engineering and integrity of government processes were relatively quiet. During the months since, a snap election was called and these two issues have become very prominent. I have mixed feelings about releasing the book at such a controversial time. However, if I had put it off until after the election, I would in a way be participating in the cover-up myself. I decided the public has a right to know."
The books are on sale from 9am Wednesday, 10 July 2002.
Questions and answers from Nicky Hager
Is this an anti-genetic engineering book?
This is not a book for or against genetic engineering. It is about issues of accountability and open government, in the context of the controversial GE issue. The main theme is that decision making about a contentious new technology like genetic engineering needs to be built upon openness and a public belief that those in charge can be trusted. That is what the current Government says too, but not what it did in the case of the contaminated sweet corn.
Is this a political book, deliberately timed for the elections?
Any journalist who came upon this story would use it. Nicky Hager first heard the story earlier this year while doing research for another book. He began to investigate it, initially for an article and then he decided it was too big for an article and began writing the book. He hoped it would be finished well before the election. When the Government called the snap election, he had to decide whether to finish it quickly or leave it until after the election. The issues raised seemed too important to leave.
Is the book trying to help the Green Party against Labour Party?
No. This is the kind of subject Nicky Hager usually researches and writes about. He published books on issues of Government secrecy and lack of accountability before both the 1996 and 1999 elections, when the National Party was in power.
Concerning the contaminated crops: no one died, what's the problem?
This is not a 'shock, horror' dangerous food story. The book does not present evidence that eating the GE sweet corn would have harmed anyone. The effect on the environment is unknown. The story is important for other reasons. People had a right to know about the sweet corn and make their own choices whether to eat it (this is particularly the case with Maori people who feel strongly about genetic engineering). The authorities go to huge efforts to stop any GE pollen or seeds escaping from small field trials, because of lack of understanding about the long-term environmental effects. Yet in this case - the largest known release of GE plants ever into the New Zealand environment - the Government decided not to have the plants removed (which initially it made arrangements to do) and did not even tell neighbouring farmers and residents.
Perhaps the Government decided that the GE sweet corn was not a threat and so it could be left in the ground. New Zealand has a strict statutory process for any release of genetically engineered organisms - the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. The Government had no authority to ignore those procedures and make ad hoc decisions about the sweet corn. What is the point of an agency like ERMA if the Government simply bypasses it when it feels like it? The Government will argue that the GE contamination tests initially showed contamination but that later analysis showed that it could not be said with certainty whether or not there was contamination. If the Government decides to evade the issue, this is likely to be the argument. It may say the contamination was 'negligible' or the evidence unclear. There was no question of contamination. Although contamination percentages sound small (just parts of a percent), there were at least 15,000 -30,000 GE plants in the environment. Under New Zealand law, even one GE plant (once known about) was illegal and should have been dealt with. But the Government chose to fudge the issues. There is a full chapter of the book looking at the ways that the scientific results were bent to political ends. The Government had two legitimate options: a) destroying the crops using the powers of the Biosecurity Act or b) making a formal application to ERMA under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act to legitimise possession of the GE sweet corn. It did neither of these.