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Tragically, New Zealand might be hoppin' onto the transgenic treadmill

(Nov. 14, 2001 -- CropChoice opinion) -- New Zealand agriculture has a "clean and green" image. That, and the thousands of farmers it benefits, including Zelka Vallings, could change because of the direction that the country's government wants to go with genetic engineering. On Oct. 31, Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that New Zealand will allow limited field trials of transgenic crops, but will push legislators to extend a moratorium on commercial release of such crops. Clark and her colleagues relied on the July 27 report by the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, which had recommended that the country carefully pursue biotechnology in agriculture.

The decision to allow field tests of these crops showed that New Zealand's leadership failed to take into account numerous associated risks. These include environmental and financial harm following genetic contamination of organic and other non-genetically modified varieties, and questions of liability. The procedure that the Royal Commission followed and the assumptions its members apparently held raise questions. CropChoice wonders whether the government's decision to allow field trials shows that the transnational biotechnology industry has unduly influenced the leaders of New Zealand in the same way it has the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Organics is a growing market, so why bother with transgenics?

The organic sector of New Zealand's agriculture is growing by 20 to 30 percent a year, says Seager Mason, CEO of BIO-GRO New Zealand, the largest certifier of organic farms in the country. Although apples and kiwi fruit account for most of the organic exports, a growing number of producers want to raise organic meat and dairy products. Heretofore, the processing infrastructure has stymied progress in this area, but Mason says, "their attitude is changing because they can't ignore the market anymore."

Other organizations and figures confirm this growth in the organic farming sector. New Zealand's Organic Products Exporters Group predicts that export sales of organic produce will grow from NZ $65 million (US $26 million) last year to NZ $100 million (US $40 million) this year. They'll increase further to NZ $500 million by 2006. The domestic value of the organic market is doubling annually, according to the Group.

A growing number of farmers want to jump into organic production or at least stick with conventional techniques, rather than going down the genetically modified path, according to a recent university report.

The Agribusiness and Economic Research Unit of Lincoln University produced the report, "Environmental Beliefs and Farm Practices of New Zealand Organic, Conventional and GE Intending Farmers," in which it documented the intention of nearly 40 percent of farmers in the country to go organic within 5 to 10 years. The researchers surveyed 656 randomly selected farmers. There are about 60,000 to 70,000 farmers in New Zealand, including 14,000 dairy farmers, estimated Green Party MP and organic farmer Ian Ewen-Street. He told CropChoice that these results are not surprising given that this is the latest in a series of surveys done over the past 5 years.

Ten percent of New Zealand farmers currently describe their growing practices as organic and 73 percent as conventional. About 17 percent reported that they would like to go the transgenic route, if it were approved. In 5 to 10 years, the number of farmers wishing to farm organically will jump from 27 percent to 37 percent, the number intending to continue conventional farming will drop to 46 percent and the number planning to grow transgenic varieties will remain at 17 percent, according to the report.

Ewen-Street told the Rural Reporter in late August: "I welcome this report because it shows what I have been saying for some time - that more and more farmers are realising the huge opportunity of organics and are looking to switch. It also shows that apart from a small and static group, farmers are rejecting genetic engineering and that those who intend to use it are typically dairy farmers and those with the highest farm incomes…Like the people of New Zealand, farmers know that they cannot have it both ways. We cannot have genetically engineered and organic agriculture co-existing. We cannot have genetic engineering and keep our clean, green, natural image."

Put simply, pollen moves and seed mix-ups happen. And organic certification disallows any genetic contamination. If it happens, then the grower loses certification and lots of money.

How easily does the pollen move?

E. Ann Clark, an agriculture professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, points out the propensity of canola pollen to move in the context of the Percy Schmeiser case. Monsanto successfully sued the Saskatchewan farmer for allegedly infringing the patent on its Roundup-resistant canola, which was found on his land; he is appealing the ruling.

"…Further, because the seed is very small, round, and smooth, it travels readily in the wind. It is not uncommon for windrowed canola to be picked up and blown over adjoining fields. Seed is known to be dispersed by haul trucks - either blown out the top if uncovered or falling off the exterior if not filled tidily. Schmeiser's contaminated fields are to the east side of a major haul road leading to Bruno, Saskatchewan, and the prevailing wind direction is west to east. The initial samples used by Monsanto to charge Schmeiser were actually taken from the roadside - not the sown fields.

Although canola is primarily a selfing species, outcrossing is in the range of 20-30 percent, and canola pollen can move long distances, several km at least, primarily via insect pollinators. The required isolation distance for hybrid canola seed is 800 m. Who is it that has to absorb the cost of installing an 800 m buffer between GM and non-GM crops on neighboring farms? Pollen has always moved - it did not start with genetic modification. But this is the first time we've called it genetic pollution, because the genes that move are proprietary .

To put these numbers into perspective, Alberta Agriculture has calculated that even at 0.2 percent outcrossing (with a neighbor's RR canola, for example), a crop yielding 25 bu ac-1 with 3 percent shattering losses would deposit 10,000 outcrossed seeds ac-1 or 4 outcrossed seeds per m2 (www.agric.gov.ab.ca/crops/canola/outcrossing.html). And that is just the genetic pollution from a single season. The lengthy dormancy interval of canola allows the soil seed bank of contaminated seed to accumulate in the soil with each successive year's addition.

Land can be contaminated with proprietary seed in other ways. If you intentionally planted RR canola [or any other herbicide tolerant (HT) canola variety], shattered RR seed would contaminate your soil next year anyway, and the next, and the next. Emergence of 'volunteer' canola in subsequent crops is nothing new in western Canada - but what is new is that the volunteer plants bear proprietary genes and are tolerant to one or more common herbicides.

You can also bring RR canola into your land inadvertently, as an unavoidable contaminant in your sown crop. Cross contamination of seed crops with GM seed is now so pervasive that seed companies will no longer guarantee "100 percent GM-free" even in the seed they sell to farmers, for any field crop that has been subject to genetic modification.

In the aggregate, these arguments explain the widespread occurrence of RR canola growing in places where it was never sown, and even where no canola has been sown, in western Canada."

Jeff Kienast, plant production purchasing manager for MyCal Corporation of America, said that transgenic contamination of conventional soybeans has become so prevalent that his company had to resort to purchasing foundation seeds from such places as Iowa State University. MyCal contracts with farmers to grow the non-transgenic soybeans that it processes for export to Japan.

"Our investigations thus far from the 2000 harvest lead us to believe that virtually all of the seed corn in the United states is contaminated with at least a trace of genetically engineered material, and often more," David Gould, a member of the certification committee of Farm Verified Organics in North Dakota and California Certified Organic Farmers, told CropChoice in February. "Even the organic lots are showing traces of biotech varieties."

Gould pointed out the now familiar StarLink corn fiasco. Iowa farmers planted 1 percent of their crop with StarLink. By harvest time, 50 percent registered positive for the genetically engineered variety.

As is the case with conventional soy, corn, and canola, organic crops have tested positive for the presence of genetically modified organisms because of cross-pollination, seed stock contamination, and the inability to segregate genetically modified from organic and conventional crops during harvest, handling, transport and milling.

In April, the University of Minnesota Extension Service warned that farmers shouldn't assume that they're growing corn free of transgenic ingredients.

It's not just farmers using organic management techniques who should worry about the spread of biotechnology into their crops. Those growing conventional varieties have reason for concern, as well.

In what could only be called a perversion of justice, biotechnology companies, namely Monsanto, have demonstrated that they'll sue farmers if the company's genetics contaminate their crops. In short, Monsanto litigates when its technology runs amok.

The Percy Schmeiser case mentioned earlier provides a good example, upon which Professor Clark of the University of Guelph elaborates:

"Let us first be clear on the crime for which Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser was found guilty.

He was found guilty of a) having Monsanto genetics on his land, and b) not advising Monsanto to come and fetch it.

He was not found guilty of brownbagging - obtaining the seed fraudulently. Indeed, all such allegations were dropped at the actual hearing, due to lack of evidence.

Regardless, in his 29 March 2001 decision (go to www.fct-cf.gc.ca and click on bulletins), Judge W. Andrew MacKay made it clear that how it got there didn't matter anyway. The guilt was the same. Specifically, "Yet the source of the Roundup resistant canola...is really not significant for the resolution of the issue of infringement..."

It also didn't matter that Schmeiser did not benefit - at all - from the RR seed. In order to derive any economic benefit from growing RR seed, you'd either have to: sell it as seed, or spray Roundup.

He did neither. He sold the crop as grain - not as seed, and he didn't spray Roundup. He acknowledges spraying Roundup around his telephone poles - a standard practice - which first alerted him in 1997 to the contamination in his field because some of the plants didn't die. Then, in typical farmer fashion, he got out his sprayer and made a couple of passes leading away from the road to see how far the contamination reached - total sprayed area was 3 ac out of the hundreds of acres sown in 1997. None of these points are disputed. No one - including Monsanto - argued that Schmeiser actually benefited - or even intended to benefit - from growing a crop contaminated with RR plants. But it didn't matter. He was guilty nonetheless, and fined $15/ac x 1030 ac. Monsanto also seeks the value of his crop $105,000, plus $25,000 for punitive and exemplary damages. He also lost the improved genetics resulting from his lifelong practice of saving his own seed to produce his own tailor-made variety of canola, as the crop was confiscated.

The harm that has been done to Percy and Louise Schmeiser, now in their 70's, is grievous. But of even greater concern is how this incomprehensible decision will affect all western Canadian farmers - regardless of whether they even grow canola, let alone GM canola."

No liability laws in the cards for New Zealand

Despite this evidence of transgenic contamination of organic and conventional crops, the resulting loss of markets and lawsuits against farmers, New Zealand plans to fall in line with the United States and Canada by not making biotechnology companies responsible for the wanderings of their technology. Even the Royal Commission took a pass on the issue.

Stuart Edwards, certification services manager for BIO-GRO, noted the Royal Commission talk about preservation of opportunities in one breath and then, in the next, ways of fast-tracking perceived low-risk crops. The problem is, he says, how to assess risk.

No independent, third-party, peer reviewed studies have been completed on the environmental and health risks from these crops. In fact, crop insurance companies won't insure the organic growers against genetic contamination.

"The regulatory authorities seem prepared to accept the evidence and research provided by the technology companies," he says.

A recent study -- "Who Bears the Risk? Genetic Modification and Liability" -- by Chen Palmer & Partners and Simon Terry Associates in New Zealand pointed out the necessity of addressing liability issues.

"GM developers should bear the full financial risk of their activities. They should be fully liable if damage results from GM experimentation.

At present, costs resulting from effects that are unforseen will tend to fall on innocent or uninvolved citizens and businesses."

The report urged the New Zealand government to make producers of transgenic seeds and crops fully liable for any damage to the environment or conventional and organic farms before permitting field trials and open releases. This is what six member countries of the European Union, led by France, are insisting on before lifting the Union's de-facto moratorium on the introduction of new transgenic crops.

Foreign markets, rather than risk genetic contamination, could look elsewhere for organic food products. Since the release of the Royal Commission report in July, two studies have shown the dangers of allowing genetic engineering to proceed.

One came from the government's very own environmental ministry, which said that the image of New Zealand as clean and green was worth NZ $500 million annually. Another report, this one from the Lincoln University Commerce Division, analyzed markets and showed that the best option was for the country to steer clear of transgenic food.

Francis Weavers of the pro-biotechnology New Zealand Life Sciences Network told CropChoice that the government would be mistaken to shun the technology and pursue only sustainable agriculture. If mycotoxins or other organic food scare were to erupt, then New Zealand would have a problem, he said. But Weavers is incorrect on that point. Markets for transgenic foods are shrinking while organic markets are increasing.

For example, European demand for animal feed guaranteed to be free of genetically modified organisms has increased this year. About four million tons of non-biotech soymeal, mostly from Brazil, was guaranteed this year by certification firm Cert ID, up from 700,000 tons in 2000, according to Reuters.

A farmer speaks out

Zelka Vallings and her husband, who organically grow garlic, avocados, oranges, cherimoyas, casimiroas, tamarillos and other kinds of subtropical fruit, as well as running a native tree nursery, oppose the introduction of transgenic crops.

"As an orchardist I am appalled because we rely upon bees and other beneficial insects to pollinate our orchard," Vallings said. "I'm concerned because HortResearch was doing a secret GE (genetically engineered) field trial of tamarillos (or tree tomatoes as they're sometimes called) up in Kerikeri relatively near here. I'm concerned because of evidence that GE crops/trees exude substances that have adverse impacts on soil ecology. I'm concerned because GE has no place in quality primary production. Any GE in NZ will adversely impact on our 'clean green nuclear free GE free' image, which is worth a lot! I'm concerned about GE because of potential adverse impacts on the public health. There is strong scientific disagreement as to whether or not GE foods are safe to eat- any adverse effects may well be cumulative.

I'm concerned about the fact that multinationals and Crown Research Institutes refuse to take responsibility/liability for their GE experiments outside the lab. If some unintended or unforseen adverse impact occurs, will they be personally and financially liable? No, the taxpayer 'carries the can.' If they are so convinced that this is the way to go, let them take the risk, which isn't to say that throwing money at the problem will necesarily fix it. GE is alive and self-replicating- if they stuff it up, you don't get a second chance. "

Vallings wants to see more attention paid to how genetically engineered plants could affect soil life. For more information on this, visit:

Physicians & Scientists for the Responsible Application of Science & Technology http://www.psrast.org and go to http://www.psrast.org/soilecolnz.htm for a link to the paper, "Soil Effects of Transgenic Agriculture -- Biological Processes & Ecological Consequences," that Dr. Neil MaGregor of Massey University submitted to the Royal Commission.

The procedure that the Royal Commission followed in gathering evidence and its assumptions should raise a concern.

The Commission declined to grant "interested party status" to a number of farmers and organizations so that they could present their views on the issues.

"We considered our farm business and tree nursery (which employs 8 people) to have a interest exceeding the ordinary person in the street, but were refused," Vallings said. "Even the New Zealand body Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics were initially refused- there was such a hue and cry that the Royal Commission backed down and allowed them." PSRG is affiliated to the international Physicians & Scientists for the Responsible Application of Science & Technology (PSRAST)."

More than 10,000 written submissions were made to the Royal Commission, 92 to 95 percent of which expressed opposition to the introduction of GM technology into New Zealand.

Incredibly, the Commission downplayed this in its report:

"At the commissions public meetings, and in the public written submissions, the great majority of the views expressed opposed any general release of genetically modified organisms, and particularly the introduction to the food chain. People were anxiuos about the possible consequencesof eating modified foods and also about the risk of damage to the environment...we were uncertain about the extent to which 'the average kiwi' participated..."

One would think 95 percent to be a fair indicator.

The report even went as far as to suggest that producers of non-gmo products voluntarily label them.

"As organic producers our licensees are mortified that we, the unwilling participants in this experiment will be forced to burden the cost of proving that our products do not contain genetically engineered ingredients, and the liability if foods labelled not to contain GE are found to be contaminated," said Stuart Edwards of BIO-GRO New Zealand.

Questionable record on field trial management

The Royal Commission expressed faith in the ability of the Environmental Risk Management Authority to approve and monitor field trials. This is the same agency that has approved every field trial to date, including the tamarillo debacle that Zelka Vallings mentioned.

Biotechnology: where the money is

In the end, governments hesitate to restrict biotechnology to laboratories and put the majority of agriculture monies into organic and other sustainable growing methods because there is little profit in it for the chemical and biotechnology companies -- no need for transgenic seed, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers.

In contrast, the government of New Zealand is involved, albeit indirectly, with this technology. Consider that the largest of the Crown Research Institutes, each of which is an independent, government-owned R&D company, plans to be an integral part of the biotechnology market.

The website for this Crown Research Institute, known as AgResearch, states:

"Life science has recently been heralded as the emerging market of the new economy – and for valid reasons, too. The global market for life sciences technology is expected to more than double from the current US$3.5 billion to US$9 billion by 2003…AgResearch’s strategy is to be part of this continually expanding global business…Since its inception, AgResearch has continually and rapidly evolved from a narrowly focused contract research and development company into a multi-faceted, global life science business.

The key driver of this transition is our long-established, internationally recognised expertise in modern biotechnologies, founded on our powerful legacy in the biological sciences of agriculture. AgResearch is now the life sciences link between that past and the better future – a future where our products will improve the quality of life and the environment around the world in a responsible and sustainable way."

CropChoice disagrees with all of that. Stuart Edwards of BIO-GRO New Zealand envisioned what could be a brighter future for New Zealand agriculture:

"We cannot justify the release of any GM organism into the environment unless there has been a comprehensive, independent impact assessment of the organism in question which can unequivacolly prove there will be not adverse environmental or health risks. If there is such a huge enonomic gain to be made from this technology, then BIO-TECH companies should be prepared to make the capital investment in appropriate controlled environment testing facilities, which remove any risk of environmental contamination.

Have we as a society not learned anything from Nuclear Power and DDT, both of which have a half life, GE does not have a half life, whatever effect it has will only be compounding."