Plant & Food’s GE Brassica Trial Closure Celebrated

Soil & Health and GE Free NZ are celebrating the commitment by Crown Research Institute (CRI) Plant & Food Research to discontinue the genetically engineered (GE) brassica field trial at Lincoln in Canterbury less than 2 years into its 10 year consent, but say the CRI’s GE alliums (onion family) field trial approval must also be revoked.

GE Free NZ President Claire Bleakley and the Soil and Health Association of NZ spokesperson Steffan Browning met with Plant & Food(1) staff yesterday, to discuss the CRI’s internal report of its biosecurity breach(2) at its genetically engineered (GE) brassica trial site. The report recommends that the GE brassica trial should be closed down immediately and a new team of personnel monitor the site over one year for regrowth GE plants.

In December a serious biosecurity breach of a flowering brassica was discovered at the secret GE field trial site by Soil and Health spokesperson Steffan Browning. Initially the breach was dismissed and denied by regulator Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry – Biosecurity New Zealand (MAF-BNZ) and Plant & Food. However presented with photographic evidence, they were forced to admit the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) controls had not been followed and at least one GE plant had been left to flower, thereby breaching their permit to conduct field trials.

“The report vindicates the very real concerns of more than 900 submitters who opposed the original application with pollen escape a major concern. Plant & Food have acknowledged a likely breach as early as February 2008. This was of an early flower, just as my fellow Soil & Health Co-chair Dr Elvira Dommisse warned was a significant risk in brassica, when she submitted to the ERMA consent hearing,” said Mr Browning.

“This begs the question, just how many GE brassicas flowered in the Lincoln environment throughout the last year? Extensive testing for GE contamination must be carried out in the area.”

“We are very pleased that the trial is to be closed down and that the internal report reflects the seriousness of the breach” said Claire Bleakley.

“The report however shows many discrepancies regarding events leading up to the breach. Excuses of over work and under resourcing of the project manager are cited as a main problem in the break down of the controls. Reported inexperience and bad advice on how plants perform in the field show that there was inadequate expertise on the aspects of plant performance in the field and the trial manager admits she did not properly read the decision or controls that ERMA placed on the trial (3).”

“These are all poor excuses and show that the Plant & Food managers and regulatory agencies did not properly oversee the trial. The whole internal support and team leadership is outrageous and defective, as is the GE technology. The total lack of enforcement and expertise by all people involved has left the trial manager as the scapegoat,” Ms Bleakley said.

“This whole debacle highlights the poor nature of the ERMA and MAF process of setting controls, monitoring and enforcement. The ERMA decision pointed out that the expertise and training of the GE team made any breach “highly improbable,” and approved the experiment with ambiguous and extremely broad controls open to gross exploitation by Plant & Food managers. The inspection agency MAF-BNZ overlooked enforcement protocols and allowed the field trial to continue with verbal assurances of site events rather than visual confirmation.”

“Everyone involved in this trial should be held accountable for the breach and the CRI should loose all its permits to carry out GE trials. This is not an individual staff fault but shows that the systemic arrogant laissez-faire attitude is rife all the way to the top. This culture treats anyone who raises concerns about GE technology with derision and this must stop immediately.”

“We hope that the ERMA and MAF reports due out later in the week will treat the breach by MAF-BNZ staff and the CRI as seriously as Plant & Food have done in their internal report and follow through with the appropriate HSNO Act penalties,” said Ms Bleakley.

“GE field trials have no place in the economic survival of New Zealand farmers and growers, and with just one other GE trial approval currently consented for (GE onion family plants yet to be planted), and the flawed Agresearch GE cattle trial on hold, now is a prime opportunity to stop all GE field trials,” said Mr Browning.

“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.”

“Producers and consumers share the desire for an economy based on the clean green environment that New Zealand’s discerning markets are looking to. Plant & Food’s research needs to focus on natural breeding techniques and extend its expertise into valuable organic research.”

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

References & Notes :
(1) Crop & Food merged recently with HortResearch to form Plant and Food Research. HortResearch’s Kieran Elbrough and Max Suckling were half of the 2007 ERMA decision making committee that approved the Crop & Food GE brassica field trial application.


Press releases on the trial breach:

(3) Plant and Food internal report on the GE brassica field trial breach.

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