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Food chain in New Zealand must be protected, scientist says

(Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Dr. Jack Heinemann commentary, 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 realisation 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 security needs.

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 insects.

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.

pf* 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.

pf* Two unknown GM organisms were detected in the harvested sweetcorn, and there has been no identification of the second. Again, without positive identification, no proper assessment of safety can be made.

pf* Less than 1 per cent of the processed food derived from the sweetcorn 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.

pf* Neither the safety authority nor the industry has offered to monitor the effects of this biosecurity breach on human health. That is irresponsible.

pf* 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 considered.

The ministry's investigation concluded that the pollen from the GM corn could have fertilised 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-fertilisation because the monitoring suggested by the ministry is incapable of detecting hybrid GM corn before it reaches possum-like proportions.

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 design.

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-fertilisation with an unknown ancestor, leaving unknown the composition of the resulting seed. This particular Bt11 event may be inserted at an uncharacterised 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 regulatory community.

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 recognised 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 event?

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.

Source: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/storydisplay.cfm?storyID=3519682&thesection=news&thesubsection=dialogue&thesecondsubsection=&reportid=53009