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Checkbiotech: Corngate probe splits on party lines over contamination
Posted by: DR. RAUPP & madora (IP Logged)
Date: October 20, 2004 07:03AM ;

The Parliamentary select committee inquiring into the release of genetically
engineered (GE) sweetcorn in 2000 has split over findings as to whether
there was a coverup in the "Corngate" affair October 2004 .

Local government and environment committee chairwoman, Green Party
co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said the committee was split 6:6 on two key
issues - whether the corn was contaminated and whether a "tolerance level"
was sought by Government officials.

"My conclusion - backed by all but the Labour and United Future members of
the committee - is that officials should either have accepted (Melbourne
test laboratory) Genescan's conclusion that the seeds were contaminated, or
conducted further testing," she said today. Her comments were made after the
committee tabled in Parliament the 250 page report on its enquiry.

"The line-up was five Labour members, plus the United Future member, saying
there was no contamination, there was no cover-up," Ms Fitzsimons said.

She said everybody else - six MPs from four other parties, including the
Greens and National - took a different view.

But the non-government members of the committee were not able to state
definitively that there was contamination because information on the tests
that could have confirmed this was kept in the Melbourne Genescan
laboratory, she said.

Formerly owned by German company, Genescan Europe, the laboratory has since
been bought by Agriquality, an SOE spun out of the Ministry of Agriculture
and Forestry.

Ms Fitzsimons said that the inquiry - which she instigated - had been
"seriously hindered" because Swiss-based seed company Novartis - now trading
as Syngenta - had refused to allow the inquiry to question the Genescan
staff that tested its corn seeds.

A memo from the laboratory manager had concluded the corn was contaminated
but said a breakdown had prevented completion of the tests.

"It is extremely frustrating that after an extensive inquiry, the committee
is no closer to knowing what data the Genescan laboratory had in order to
reach that conclusion," Ms Fitzsimons said. If the tests had later been
completed, the issue of the corn's contamination would have been resolved -
yet no official ever phoned to have the tests finished.

Ms Fitzsimons said that if Syngenta had thought the laboratory data would
have cleared its seeds, it would have let the committee have access to it.

The two factions had each included differing views in the committee report,
and 10 agreed recommendations for the future.

"A particularly strong recommendation, that we all sign up to, is that the
protocol for testing has got to specify that government regulators must have
access to all of the lab material, the ability to talk to the people who did
the tests and access to all their data sheets," Ms Fitzsimons said.

"It is outrageous that a committee of Parliament could be prevented from
getting such simple information".

The inquiry was triggered when author Nicky Hager published his book, Seeds
of Distrust, in July 2002 - 17 days before the general election - disclosing
that thousands of GE sweetcorn plants had been grown in Gisborne, Hawke's
Bay and Marlborough from a contaminated, 5.6 tonne consignment in 2000 of
seeds from the United States.

The book caused a political storm because Hager alleged that at the time the
Government was told of the contamination, in November 2000, officials
considered setting a tolerance level for contamination rather than adhering
to the Government policy of "zero tolerance".

Hager's allegations that the GE-contaminated corn was allowed to remain in
the ground and that the Government subsequently tried to cover the issue up
exploded "Corngate" to become key issue of the election and to drive a wedge
between the anti-GE Green Party and Labour.

Prime Minister Helen Clark denied any cover-up and pledged to release all
government advice on the matter. Corngate documents were released in four
separate information "dumps" - including 1800 pages released during the
campaign - though the then Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC)
chief executive Mark Prebble was to later admit to the select committee that
he did not initially release four documents.

A Labour member of the select committee, David Parker, MP for Otago, told
NZPA that the committee's own scientific expert gave evidence that MAF's
director of plant biosecurity, Richard Ivess, decided to accept the seed
batch as being free of GE content, but did not make the decision on the
basis of tolerating a level of detected contamination. The tolerance
involved was for the statistical risk in the sampling regime. Another
member, United Future MP Larry Baldock said today that in his view the most
significant finding was "that there was no cover-up".

"The committee unanimously agreed that there was no cover-up and there were
no direct ministerial instructions to officials," he said.

"Neither MAF nor Erma (Environmental Risk Management Authority) or the
Ministry for the Environment had thorough protocols in the event of an
accidental release ," he said.

National MP Nick Smith, another committee member said the select committee
failed to uncover the truth about Corngate.

"Officials went to extraordinary lengths to give oral evidence that
contradicted the paper record.

"It is absolutely plain from the paper trail that the government set an
illegal tolerance of known contamination, and that six months later this was

Ms Fitzsimons said the committee hearings found that evidence given orally
by officials was "inconsistent" with the written records.

"While officials told us the decision to allow the corn to grow was made by
one MAF official, who decided there was no evidence of contamination, papers
from the time instead record officials discussing a threshold for
contamination and referring the decision to chief executives."

"Do you rely on what officials all turned up and told us - and they all sang
absolutely from the same songsheet - or do you see what papers at the time

"Government members have had to rely on the evidence given to the hearing,
and the other members have based their conclusions on what documents at the
time showed."

Ms Fitzsimons said that it was clear that there had been a lot of confusion
at the time over what was meant by "tolerance" of GE contamination: "It was
sometimes used to mean a tolerance for a certain level of uncertainty
because of testing methods, and it was used to mean a tolerance of found

"Everybody agrees that confusion was there - the question was what was the
final decision?" she said. In the final analysis, officials met on the
morning of December 1, 2000, to decide whether or not to set a level of
tolerance. But the results of the testing were not certain so the officials
decided to refer the decision up the chain of bureaucracy.

"A meeting of chief executives, chaired by Mark Prebble, occurred at 5pm on
that Friday, December 1," she said. "There are no minutes or notes of any
kind from that meeting, yet it was clearly the crucial decision-making
meeting, because immediately afterwards, Prebble phoned the Prime Minister
and said: `It is no longer certain that we have contamination'.

"He didn't say they had decided that there was no contamination - he said it
was no longer certain."

The final evaluation reported that the contamination, if there was any, was
less than 0.5 per cent.


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