MAF-Biosecurity NZ and Plant & Food still not taking GE risk seriously

MAF – Biosecurity NZ (MAFBNZ) appears to be letting go of New Zealand’s zero tolerance to GE contamination, according to the Soil & Health Association of NZ. Although genetically engineered (GE) brassica plants were known to have flowered in a Plant & Food Research trial in Lincoln, MAFBNZ has not undertaken any testing for contamination by GE plant pollen in the Lincoln area.

Soil & Health has asked for MAFBNZ to instigate comprehensive testing for GE contamination of brassica seed and bee products, especially honey, from the Lincoln area. They have also asked for the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) to immediately reassess and withdraw consents held by Plant & Food Research for GE field trials of brassica and Allium species (onions, garlic, leeks etc).

“Despite New Zealand exports and tourism relying significantly on our Clean Green, 100% Pure and GE- Free image, MAFBNZ have not even managed to get a testing regime underway at Lincoln to ensure the GE-free status of properties near the botched Plant & Food Research field trial,” said Soil & Health spokesperson Steffan Browning.

“Zero tolerance is the appropriate regime regarding GE contamination in New Zealand and that is what MAFBNZ is tasked to ensure. Assuming wind would blow pollen just 2 metres and that bees and other insects would not pollinate plants more than 100 metres from a GE pollen source is ludicrous, yet that is how MAF has justified it not testing.”

MAF is currently responsible for enforcing compliance with any conditions imposed by the ERMA on using new organisms, and for managing any biosecurity issues raised by GE organisms at the border or in New Zealand.

Following the discovery of a flowering GE Brassica by Soil & Health in December 2008, MAFBNZ evaluated non-compliance with controls at Plant & Food Research – the Lincoln-based crown research institute containment facility where GE brassica plants had been growing as part of an approved field trial. MAFBNZ has said that the risk of bees carrying pollen away was extremely unlikely and by other insects as very low.

MAFBNZ Principal Adviser Doug Lush says the MAFBNZ investigation was wide ranging and included a thorough analysis of the possible range that any pollen or seed could have travelled.

He says MAFBNZ has conducted surveillance for brassica plants to a radius of 100m from the trial plot. No Brassica oleracea (broccoli type) plants, capable of forming seed during the risk time period, were found. He also referred to skant flowering and bee behaviour reducing the chance of pollen spread. However, Soil & Health argues that even if skant GE flowering at the time, it could have been prevented by committed MAFBNZ inspections and he did not take the necessary action to get the bolting plants removed, as had been specified in the trial consent.

“That flies in the face of the photographic evidence of a more than one GE flowering event, a strong floral sward during the December 2008 GE brassica flowering event and conditions at that time favouring the site for bee and other pollinator activity,” said Mr Browning.

“MAF have gone for the easy route of checking the Plant & Food trial site over the next few years in the very unlikely event that GE seed from the flowering plants remains. Yet as the site was cleaned up ahead of seed maturing, following publicity about the flowering GE plant, it is far more likely that GE seed has been formed beyond the site where pollen was transferred.”

“ GE brassica pollen has been shown to travel up to 26 kilometres in a British study. There was evidence of plenty of insect activity and strong winds at the Lincoln site at the time, so this possibility cannot be ruled out. Plant & Food’s own entomologists have identified some native flies as having the ability to carry 10 times the pollen as honey bees from the brassica pak choi.”

“In the failed experiment’s log, Plant & Food’s Dr Mary Christey recorded that monitoring (including for flowering) had to stop on at least one occasion due to high winds, and her own photographs show other GE brassica flowering events around that time. Wind events at the time of the December flowering toppled a pine tree between the GE brassica and intended GE onion trial sites, yet MAF’s Principle Advisor said, “Wind dispersal of brassica pollen is thought to extend only up to two metres”.

Denial from Plant & Food also continues with their spokesperson quoted this week as saying that Dr Christey’s photographs showed plants, “all at stages within the controls required for this trial,” yet the photographs obtained by GE Free NZ clearly showed some flowering and many plants had started to initiate flowering, a process known as bolting.

The ERMA consent condition (condition 1.8) explicitly states that “Brassica oleracea plants shall be prevented from producing open flowers in the field test site. Plants identified as initiating bolting must either be immediately moved back into a containment structure (control 1.4) or killed (control 1.12).

“Once again this begs the question, just how many GE brassicas flowered in the Lincoln environment over the last year? With proven flowering events, extensive testing for GE contamination must be carried out in the area. This now needs to continue beyond the current season due to MAF’s lack of action in collecting samples, as some seed set may now be harvested or fallen on the soil. Brassica seed can remain viable in the soil for several years.”

“Although Soil & Health applauds the end of the proven risky GE brassica field trial at Lincoln less than 2 years into its 10 year consent period, the Plant & Food GE alliums field trial approval must also be revoked.”

“Plant & Food have failed badly with the GE brassica trial, and remain unable to take ERMA’s consent conditions seriously. With an ERMA consent that includes allowing flowering of GE onions in supposed insect and wind safe structures at the trial site later this year the Crown Research Institute must be stopped in its GE field trials immediately.”

“ERMA has enough information now to carry out a public reassessment on all Plant & Food’s GE activities and curtail the field trials quickly.”

“The stopping of these dangerous risks to New Zealand’s biosecurity helps maintain and build the clean green image that is more and more important for the sales of New Zealand produce.”

Soil & Health is committed to GE free food and environment and aspires to an Organic 2020.


1) Overseas experience has shown GM crops threaten organics.
In May 2003 The UK Guardian newspaper reported UK environment minister Michael Meacher conceded that contamination from GM crops threatens organic food production. “The coexistence of organic and GM crops is a very real problem,” he said. see:,9061,959641,00.html

2) Scientists have identified contamination risks in GM oil seed rape
The Guardian, October 14, 2003 (UK)
Government scientists have discovered that genetically modified oil seed rape cannot be contained by separating it from fields of conventional crops, after bees carried the pollen up to 16 miles (26km) away. A second piece of research has shown that once GM oil seed rape has been grown in a field, it would be 16 years before a conventional crop could be grown in the same field without fear of contamination of more than 0.9%, the threshold for claiming that the crop was GM free. The amount of gene flow rapidly declines over tens of meters and long distance transfer is “rare”. Transfer from one field to the next is around 0.1%, one in 1,000. Long distance transfer was blamed on bees carrying the pollen back to the hive and swapping it with other pollen – fertilising plants thought to be miles out of reach. The scientists concluded: “Complete (100%) purity cannot be maintained by geographical separation.” The second study involved the cross-pollination of rape with other wild relatives and spilt seed re-growing in fields the next year. Only rigorous spraying with weed killer every year for five years would reduce them to less than the 0.9% contamination level for the new crops to be classed as non-GM. If the field was not sprayed, the model predicted that the presence of the original variety in subsequent crops would not fall below 1% for 16 years. Web Link:,9061,1062559,00.html

3) The Press, October 7, 2005 (New Zealand)
The skills of native flies in pollinating South Island crops may shed more light in evaluating the potential of cross contamination from genetically modified plants. A study by Crop & Food Research is monitoring the behaviour of native flies in arable plants and has found they could be major pollinators.

“If New Zealand was ever to allow commercial transgenic crops we must first examine any possibility of gene flow from these crops to other crops, weeds and native flora,” said Crop & Food Research entomologist Dr Brad Howlett.

Little was known about the role of native pollinators in transferring pollen in crops before this study. Until now it was assumed bees do most of the crop pollination and arable farmers have traditionally placed honey bee hives next to crops for this purpose.

Native flies have, however, been found in some crops carrying up to 19,000 pollen grains – as many as honey bees. On crops of pak choi, a bibionid fly was found in numbers 10 times more than honey bees and carrying the same amount of pollen.

The range of pollinators in crops, however, varies widely even on sites that are close together. In Central Otago it was found that two onion fields about 17km apart attracted completely different ranges of insects.

“To evaluate the likelihood of the movement of transgenic genes via pollen from GM plants, we must first understand the mechanisms that cause pollen movement,” said Howlett.

Web Link:,2106,3436158a3600,00.html

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