Should AgResearch be charged with fraud?

Government must cancel all genetic engineering (GE) field trials by the government funded Crown Research Institute’s, AgResearch, Scion and Plant & Food Research, now that AgResearch has been shown to intentionally avoid critical safety research required of it, according to the Soil & Health Association of NZ.(1)

Soil & Health also believes charges relating to false pretences or fraud should be considered in relation to AgResearch’s activities.

“Concerns about the risk of new viral and prion diseases, and the potential loss of antibiotic effectiveness, from AgResearch’s GE cattle activities, led to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) 2002 approval including limits on the genetic material to be used in the GE cattle experiments, and requiring all reasonable efforts to monitor for adverse effects,” said Soil & Health-Organic NZ spokesperson Steffan Browning. (2)

“However AgResearch has followed a dishonest path of horizontal gene transfer (HGT) research sampling, reporting and media responses’ that has put the public and environment at risk. Scion and Plant & Food Research have previously also misled the government and public about their field trials environmental effects and monitoring practices.”

“AgResearch has more seriously exceeded even Plant & Food’s blatant misreporting of its GE brassica field trial in 2008. The Plant & Food Research GE trial was closed down following Soil & Health and GE Free NZ’s identifying risky approval breaches including illegal flowering of the GE brassicas.” (3)

AgResearch’s genetically engineered (GE) animal field trial site was approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) with a control requiring research to try and find evidence of horizontal gene transfer (HGT), transgenes or genetic material from GE cattle carcasses transferring to micro-organisms, at the Ruakura offal pit site.

ERMA in 2002 considered the GE cattle research would have “significant uncertainty as to the magnitude and likelihood of the adverse effect arising,” and “If HGT is detected, genetic modification and disposal of cattle shall be immediately halted.”

“As soon as AgResearch saw any hint of HGT in 2004 from samples near the buried GE carcasses, they modified their subsequent sampling to avoid that possibility, and annually reported over at several years to ERMA that there was no evidence that HGT was occurring,” said Mr Browning. (4)

“It must be asked, that if by intentionally avoiding detection of HGT from their offal pit, should AgResearch be charged with fraud.”

The Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety (INBI) at the University of Canterbury has reviewed AgResearch’s reports of its monitoring efforts, as released to GE Free New Zealand (in Food and Environment) under the Official Information Act. (5)

The INBI report published in the Journal of Organic Systems states, “By design of experiments, AgResearch ignored up to an estimated 99.9% of bacteria and all other kinds of microbes.”

“Not only was the sample selection incredibly small but sampling was nearly always taken a considerable distance away from where HGT would be best sampled,” said Mr Browning.

“ERMA required carcasses be buried to a depth of at least 2 metres yet samples were mostly taken at a depth of just 30cm, and as the peer reviewed INBI Report states, “and were so far away on the scale of microorganisms as to have been equivalent to sampling in an arbitrary location hundreds of kilometers from the pits.”

“Further, when considering the AgResearch monitoring reports to ERMA, the INBI Report states, “By repeating the claim that there was no relationship between resistance and depth in multiple years, AgResearch potentially creates the false impression that the 2004 results were replicated when there is no indication that they were.”

Graphics from the Journal of Organic Systems published INBI Report showing annual sample depths relativity to genetically engineered cattle carcasses.

(A) AgResearch sampled soil from offal pits (cylinders in figure) at varying distances from the surface (depth, in metres). The reports did not specify the how close the carcasses came to the surface in the actual pits sampled. The carcasses may have been between 5.8 and 2 m from the surface (they had to be a minimum of 2 m deep to comply with ERMANZ control 1.4). There was no indication of whether any soil sampled was in contact with the carcasses, but it is possible that it was for samples taken in 2004. Depth and year at which samples were taken are shown as black bars.

(B) Soil (grey) subsidence in the pits over time was compensated through the addition of fresh soil (dark grey). The reports made no mention of whether soil was added to pits prior to sampling. Since subsistence takes time, samples taken before the addition of fresh soil to the pits were in most years both likely to have been well above the interface with carcasses (which were about a minimum of 1.7 m lower than sample depth) and to have provided too little time for the appearance of a target population of detectable size. Samples taken after the pits were topped up would have been in fresh soil never in contact with the carcasses.  AgResearch reports a variety of sampling depths. But only in the 2004 report was sampling beyond 30 cm, and in the 2009a report, sampling was to the depth of only 15 cm (Figure 2A).

“All GE field trials in recent years have been involved with major non-compliance of approval conditions, and with AgResearch involved with them all and extremely misleading in its representation of HGT research, safety of GE field trials is in complete doubt and should be stopped immediately,” said Mr Browning.

“AgResearch is now also misleading the media as to its knowledge of the INBI Report and its contents, and an AgResearch spokesman told Country 99TV that AgResearch had only just received the report and could not yet comment.”

“We’ve only just got it ourselves so we’re still putting a response together,” the AgResearch spokesman said.

However, the Journal of Organic Systems – INBI report says AgResearch was provided with a draft copy of the final report nearly 7 months ago on 23 November 2010. (6,7)

“AgResearch has also undertaken HGT research at the Plant & Food Research and Scion GE field trials, with resultant claims of no environmental effects. However that research has also been heavily criticised by independent scientists, and it is time for the government to stop pouring tens of millions of dollars into these risky field trials until the risks are independently studied,” said Mr Browning.(8)

Environment Waikato should reassess its RMA consent to AgResearch to discharge up to 16 cubic metres per day of dairy shed waste water and milk to land from a transgenic cattle containment facility, and any subsequent discharges to air until 20th March 2039. Environment Waikato needs to consider the surface water, leaching and drainage to neighbouring property and Waikato waterways from the AgResearch GE facility, especially now that horizontal gene transfer research has been shown to be effectively non-existent and unknown risks persist. (9)

Soil & Health has a vision of a GE Free Organic 2020, with no risk of novel GE disease organisms or cruel animal experiments, and with government research targeting genuinely sustainable organic systems.


EVALUATION OF HORIZONTAL GENE TRANSFER MONITORING EXPERIMENTS CONDUCTED IN NEW ZEALAND BETWEEN 2004 AND 2009. Jack A. Heinemann1,2*, Brigitta Kurenbach1,2 and Nikki Bleyendaal1  1Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety and the School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch New Zealand  2GenØk – Centre for Biosafety, Tromsø, Norway.  Corresponding author. Phone +64 3 364 2500 email   03 3642926   021 0239 7321

(2)  “There are potentially non-negligible risks to the environment that are not related to the ability of the cattle to escape. These risks include unintended insertion of viral cell receptors and creation of new viral reservoirs, and adverse effects arising as a result of HGT” (p. 47 ERMANZ, 2002,). …

“significant uncertainty as to the magnitude and likelihood of the adverse effect arising” (p. 21 ERMANZ 2002).  …

“The Committee’s view is that every reasonable opportunity should be taken to monitor developments such as this for the occurrence of adverse effects and for information on the significance of pathways such as HGT” (p. 21 ERMANZ, 2002).

“Micro-organisms shall be tested for the presence of the introduced genetic modifications at the disposal sites. If HGT is detected, genetic modification and disposal of cattle shall be immediately halted” (p. 58 ERMANZ, 2002, Bold added). …


(4)    Journal of Organic Systems – INBI Report page 7 as in (1).

(5)    GE Free New Zealand (in Food and Environment) Claire Bleakley 06-3089842 / 027 348 6731  Jon Carapiet 021 0507681


(7)    Journal of Organic Systems – INBI Report page 5.  As part of our public service and specifically our formation mission, INBI accepted this task pro bono. Work was initiated in April 2010. On 20 April 2010, INBI submitted supplementary questions to AgResearch (Supplementary Material) with a promise to provide AgResearch with an advanced draft of our final report, to allow AgResearch to register with us any errors of fact before the report was released. AgResearch accepted and released answers to our supplementary questions under the Official Information Act. A draft of this report was then provided to AgResearch on 23 November 2010.

(8)    Heinemann, J.A., and T. Traavik. 2004. Problems in monitoring horizontal gene transfer in field trials of transgenic plants. Nat. Biotechnol. 22:1105-1109.

(9)    Copy of Resource Consent Certificate No: 110731 Discharge Consent to discharge up to 16 cubic metres per day of dairy shed waste water and milk to land from a transgenic cattle containment facility, and any subsequent discharges to air.   Expiry 20th March 2039.

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