Seeds of Distrust
Review by John Silvester
What are Nicky Hager's credentials for writing "The story of a GE Cover-up" as he subtitles his report? With his degrees in physics and philosophy and his experience over more than a decade as an investigative journalist, we could hope for clear, logical thinking and expression, combined with a determination to get to the bottom of things. I feel that he meets these expectations. The issue is not one of technical mastery of the relevant field. As Hager says:
"I should state clearly that I am not claiming to have anything expert to say about genetic engineering. That issue is the context rather than the subject of the book. This story is about the importance of freedom of information, public accountability and the great disease of modern politics: the assumption that it is legitimate for those with power to manage and manipulate the news."(1)
In the 122 pages of Seeds of Distrust, Hager sets out in careful but concise detail the process in which the good intentions proclaimed by politicians were first cracked by powerful pressures and then plastered over with smooth PR. Although the book is grippingly readable, it is not sensationalist, every step of the argument being supported by references discretely tucked away at the back of the book in appendices and endnotes. An adequate index also assists the reader to access the main ideas quickly, while the quality of the documentation facilitates examination of Hager's allegations and encourages further investigation.
In his version of the story, slick PR, media manipulation and a level of secrecy that extends to misleading the Labour-Alliance Cabinet culminate in deceiving the Royal Commission. While Seeds of Distrust is a quality piece of investigative journalism, it may also be viewed as an exciting detective yarn initiated by a serendipity - the author being in the right place at the right time to catch a chance remark that lifts a corner of the cover-up. Picking up the first clue, Sherlock Holmes Hager passionately pursues his quarry. The trail commences with the events on the opening day of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, the very day on which "routine testing of a large batch of sweet corn seeds being imported from the United States indicated that they were contaminated with genetically engineered seeds."(2)
At the end of the trail we find a retrospective risk management policy instituted after the contaminated corn seeds have been planted. In the double-speak of evolving Labour lingo, we find that 'GE-free' translates as 'containing less than 0.5%', just the right risk-level to "redefine the contamination out of existence".(3) A qualification should be added, however, in the light of Hager's change of viewpoint after publication. Steven Price reports his interview with Hager regarding Price's advice on the publication, as a media law lecturer, stating:
"Let's revisit th[e] .denials from ministers during the election. The seeds were not contaminated! It's not that clear. In Seeds of Distrust, Hager consistently describes the Novartis seeds as contaminated. The evidence doesn't go that far either. Hager says he accepted the opinion of his experts . but now wishes he'd talked of "suspected contamination' - which raises much the same concerns."(4)
Seeds of Distrust is a must-read for anyone interested in food safety in New Zealand. The issues with which it deals extend far beyond the corn contamination cover-up to the biological integrity of our crops and our unique biodiversity, as well as the health and general well being of our children. In spite of the lifting of the moratorium on GE field trials, this book remains a useful tool for cultivating decisions that are, "sensible and ethical and not merely 'rational'."(5)
Jeanette Fitzsimons reminds us that "the movement against GE in New Zealand is stronger than ever", and that "important protections recommended by the Royal Commission have not been implemented". She urges us to "fight in Parliament, in the fields, and on the streets, until people stop messing ignorantly with the fundamental processes of life itself".(6)
(1). Hager, N. 2002. Seeds of Distrust. Nelson, New Zealand.
(2). Ibid., p. 14.
(3). Ibid., p. 122.
(4). Price, S. "Proceed with Caution", Metro, Feb 2003, p. 70.
(5). Ibid., p. 122.
(6). Fitzsimons, J. 2003. "GE: It's not over", Green Times, Spring 2003,
Seeds of Distrust is available through us for $20, less than the usual retail price of $24.95. Send us a cheque for $23 ($20 + $3pp) to obtain your copy. See the Contact Page for details
Imported foods review
The Food Safety Authority has begun a review of food imports to improve the regime that regulates the importation of food into New Zealand. In the light of the contaminated corn fiasco, the review is highly relevant.
The review proposes that economic efficiency should be the primary criterion for the imported food regime. But consumer safety and consumer information needs should be the overriding priority NOT economic efficiency.
Unbelievably the review reveals that it is illegal to test for contaminants of heavy metals, pesticides, antibiotics and bacteria at the point of entry into New Zealand, unless the food is on a very small list of 'prescribed high risk foods'. This list is out of date and totally inadequate. A change to the Food Act is needed, to permit routine surveillance testing and random testing across the full range of foods imported into New Zealand.
The review revealed that there is no system for testing for unapproved GE material in imported foods - obviously we need one!
The review revealed that currently about 5% of imported foods are not properly labelled, and then suggested that illegally labelled imported products be permitted on the market because it might cost too much for them to be properly labelled! This astonishing proposal not only undermines consumer's right to know, but would be tantamount to a subsidy to imported foods as domestic producers all have to comply!
The review admits that about 62% of our pork is imported from Canada and it has a high level of salmonella contamination -so consumers bear a significant health risk from this meat. This is yet another reason for mandatory Country of Origin labelling -so that consumers can protect their own health and make our own informed decisions about what we want to eat.
The review completely fails to address the issue of contamination of foods in transit - for example bulk foods like corn being transported in ships that had previously carried lead -as happened in the lead-contaminated Chinese corn saga. Quite clearly restrictions on transporting foods in ships that carry heavy metals and toxic chemicals are urgently needed.
A copy of the review can be found on the NZFSA's website:
http://www.nzfsa.govt.nz (Submissions closed for this on 10th September.)
From Food for Thought newsletter September 2004
Green MP Sue Kedgley is challenging the food industry to implement a 10 point voluntary action plan she has drawn up to reduce obesity in New Zealand, to demonstrate that it is serious about reducing obesity in New Zealand.
10 Point Voluntary Action Plan for the Food Industry:
- Follow McDonald's lead by including nutritional food labelling on all take-away and delicatessen food.
- Voluntarily withdraw all advertisements for foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar during children's and adolescents' TV viewing periods.
- Remove food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar (and sugar substitutes) from vending machines in schools, and replace with water, milk and natural fruit juices.
- Remove from schools and other educational sponsorship all branding of foods high in fat, sugar and salt.
- Support an independent review of the Code on Children's Food Advertising.
- Remove reference to any foods/drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt from all sports sponsorship, using only brands associated with healthier options.
- Develop (in conjunction with government, consumer and health groups), targets for the reduction of fat, sugar and salt in all processed foods, beginning with children's foods, to implement within five years.
- Identify on labels which foods and drinks are high in fat, sugar (sugar substitutes) or salt.
- Work with supermarkets and other stores to keep snacks high in fat, sugar and salt away from the checkout, replacing them with healthier options such as fruit.
- Use every opportunity to promote the healthy eating message to children, and only run promotional campaigns, including in-store promotions, that encourage children to eat healthier food.
From Green Party media release 2 Sept 04
Councils to investigate GMO risks
Rodney District Council has joined Whangarei, Kaipara, and Far North District Councils and Waitakere City Council in supporting the commissioning of a "Risk Evaluation & Options Report" on GMOS for the Northland peninsula.
Each council has voted to contribute $l0,000 towards a detailed study of the environmental, economic and cultural risks of GMOs on the region north of Auckland. The study will examine the risks of GMOs at a local and regional level, something that has not yet been addressed by ERMA. Primary producer and Mäori concerns will also be considered. The results will provide a range of options to respond to the risks of GMOs, including prohibition.
GE FREE NORTHLAND (in Food & Environment) media release 3 Sept 04
Another aspartame story
A colleague commented how clumsy she was getting and that she was starting to become quite worried about it. Then a few days later she arrived at work with steristrips (paper stitches) across the bridge of her nose. She had tripped at home and fallen through a glass window. Having noticed that she regularly drank diet drinks I asked her how much on average she drank.
'Oh, a couple of glasses a night and about 2 litres at the weekend and then a can or two at work.' I mentioned the literature from the Safe Food Campaign regarding aspartame and another article that I had. She was happy to look at the literature. About a week later I asked her how she was. She had read the literature that weekend and decided to stop the diet drinks and see what happened. Her symptoms had completely disappeared and she is now drinking bottled water instead.
From V Bone, Auckland
See Chris Wheeler's informative article on aspartame (from our newsletter no. 11)