September 10, 2003
-- CropChoice news, New Zealand Herald, 08/25/03:
What have we learned from the escape of genetically modified
(GM) corn throughout New Zealand? The most alarming outcome
of the recently concluded investigation is the least reported.
Current tools for detecting and monitoring GM organisms are
too crude and insensitive for the Ministry of Agriculture
to use on an environmental scale. This realization undermines
claims that uses of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
outside the laboratory can be contained.
If this is the best detection and monitoring we can do, our
technology is incapable of protecting us against both the
unintended importing of unwanted organisms and illegal importing
with intent to cause harm. This point is increasingly important
given the heightened awareness of our biosecurity and national
The ministry detected a rate of GM contamination of approximately
0.05 percent. One of the contaminating GMOs first identified
in Gisborne contains a modification called the Bt11 event.
That event is a set of genes used to select a plant with an
increased ability to resist insect pests, notably the corn
borer, because the plants have also been modified with a gene
from a soil bacterium that produces a protein toxic to the
A rate of contamination of one to five seeds for every 10,000
(0.05 percent), which is just detectable, is an estimated
30,000 released GMOs, despite our best efforts to keep them
out. Simple population genetics models predict that number
could grow to 30 million plants, consuming 1000 times the
land area, within 25 to 50 years.
Here are the facts about the GM corn that breached our biosecurity.
- The New Zealand Food Safety Authority and the ministry
have certified the GM-contaminated food as approved for
human consumption even though they have not adequately identified
the modified organisms.
In certified varieties with known origins and breeding histories,
corn modified by the Bt11 event has been approved for human
consumption. The evidence of the ministry and the safety
authority does not demonstrate that the New Zealand GMOs
with the Bt11 event are among the approved varieties.
- Two unknown GM organisms were detected in the harvested
sweet corn, and there has been no identification of the
second. Again, without positive identification, no proper
assessment of safety can be made.
- Less than 1 per cent of the processed food derived from
the sweet corn was contributed by the unknown GMOs. But
no evidence has been provided to assure New Zealanders that
the contaminating organism is safely consumed at or below
the 1 per cent level.
- Neither the safety authority nor the industry has offered
to monitor the effects of this biosecurity breach on human
health. That is irresponsible.
- In the months since the breach, there has been no announcement
of new legislation or resources to develop appropriate technologies
for detecting, monitoring and containing organisms that
are illegal in the broader New Zealand environment.
Instead, legislation that would further weaken our ability
to decide which organisms we want in our environment (for
example, the New Organisms and Other Matters Bill) is being
The ministry's investigation concluded that the pollen from
the GM corn could have fertilized local stocks of maize from
which seed is recycled for use in New Zealand. It will take
some years to see the impacts of this cross-fertilization
because the monitoring suggested by the ministry is incapable
of detecting hybrid GM corn before it reaches possum-like
Part of the risk assessment of any GMO should include a demonstration
of the ability to detect and control harms while they are
still manageable. If GMOs are too difficult to detect for
proper management, they should fail the risk assessment. When
or if we come to live with certain GMOs in our environment,
it should be by choice, not by accident, indifference or nefarious
That the ministry identified the Bt11 event in one of the
GMOs does not tell us that the organism in those fields was
descended from a variety of corn tested for safety. If we
are now to live with this particular GM corn (or a maize hybrid
arising within our fields), it should be immediately isolated
for a full assessment.
The safety authority has made a conclusion about the safety
of this material based on less knowledge than is required
for approval to develop, in contained laboratories, organisms
never intended for release or consumption.
Several alternative scenarios are equally plausible in light
of the data provided by the ministry. The Bt11 event may not
be the only modification, and the other modifications may
not be ones we know to look for.
A Bt11-bearing chromosome may have been acquired by cross-fertilization
with an unknown ancestor, leaving unknown the composition
of the resulting seed. This particular Bt11 event may be inserted
at an uncharacterized location within the genome, causing
other unknown effects when the corn is eaten. This contaminant
may be from a line of corn never tested, or withdrawn from
testing because of harmful effects, and be unknown to the
In fact, the source of the two different contaminating organisms
may never be known. It is incomprehensible how these organisms
can be certified as safe for consumption before their identities
and histories are known.
The level of detection available to the ministry is clearly
too crude to reliably protect New Zealand's interest in the
case of commercial imports. Adherence to the spirit of proceeding
with caution should inspire the Government to question whether
these technologies will be robust enough to monitor contained
field trials, conditional releases and full releases, should
these be permitted by passage of the new organisms bill and
after the expiration of the moratorium.
Whereas the Institute of Gene Ecology does not oppose the
use of GMOs in this way, it does oppose their use before they
are properly tested for safety, environmental and economic
impact, and social acceptability.
What are the ongoing consequences if we cannot, or do not,
improve detection? The corn crisis should be recognized for
what it is: an admission of our vulnerability to those who
would introduce organisms to harm us. Included in this list
would be those who would use biological agents for terrorism,
industrial sabotage and agro-crime.
But the list doesn't end there. What are our economic and
legal vulnerabilities? Absent from the ministry report is
comment on the possible legal ramifications if seeds from
this crop, or maize hybrids, are recycled for use here. Will
the seed supplier seek remedy against our farmers for infringing
on the intellectual property rights of the owners of the Bt11
Such action may seem absurd, since we did not ask for this
contamination. Yet farmers in Canada, who also did not intend
to grow GM plants, are facing this very issue.
New Zealand needs to reconsider its research and regulatory
needs. We should invest substantially in building our capacity
to eliminate threats to our biosecurity and ask the industry
to pay their fair share of these costs.
In the meantime, those who protect our food chain have urgent
work to do, and need proper support to do it.
* Associate Professor Jack Heinemann is director of Canterbury
University's Institute of Gene Ecology.