Update: GE Brassicas Terminated, Methyl bromide, Nanotech, Clopyralid contamination

posted in: GE, Health, Magazine Articles
Organic NZ Magazine: March/April 2009
Section: News from the Frontline
Author: Steffan Browning

Kia ora Soil & Health members and Organic NZ readers,

I hope you are all enjoying continued harvests, storage and delicious meals from this summer’s bounty, and the demise of another GE (genetic engineering) field trial! Thanks to the Scion GE trees being removed last year following Soil & Health’s exposure of compliance breaches, and now a similar situation with Plant & Food’s GE brassica trial, there are currently no GE field trials operating in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Unfortunately the Plant & Food GE allium trial has approval but it is on hold due to the GE brassica trial breaches. There are the AgResearch GE cattle out to pasture, resting from experimentation, as that consent has now expired and AgResearch awaits its big broad brush GE animal applications to be processed or stopped. A great time to say NO MORE, rescind the allium approval, euthanase or quarantine the GE cattle for the rest of there natural(ish) life.

Steffan Browning


GE brassicas terminated!

A victory for effort by Soil & Health and GE Free NZ has culminated in the termination of the Plant & Food (formerly Crop & Food) Research’s GE Brassica field trial at Lincoln. The original application before ERMA received 959 submissions, with all but a few in strong opposition to the trial. Many submissions were by our members and readers who expressed concern at the very risks that the principal scientist involved, Dr Mary Christey, and Plant & Food team then allowed to be realised.

Pollen from the experiment was allowed to escape the primitive experimental plot and GE plant material left able to regrow following last season’s experiments. Other failings also occurred and Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries – Biosecurity New Zealand (MAF-BNZ) also showed that as in the GE tree issue last year, it again was not meeting its responsibilities of inspections and monitoring.

Following locating the trial site (and we always will) I called in pre-Christmas to check on how this summers planting was progressing. I found that it was yet to be planted but in the past season’s planting area amongst the fallowed vegetation, were dozens of regrowth buffer and GE experimental plants. Close inspection showed many of the buffer plants and at least one GE plant flowering and setting seed. The two-headed stem from the GE plant showed evidence that several flowers had flowered.

When approached by media, Plant & Food initially denied any breach of consent or that any plant had flowered, but when presented with my photographic evidence they modified their story to just one flower on just one stem. MAF-BNZ also denied any breach initially even after inspecting the site that day, showing that the inspector didn’t understand that no live plant material from the previous season was allowed. With continued media pressure both agencies began to acknowledge the seriousness of the event and damage control began.

MAF-BNZ completed a Critical Situation Report on 14 January which outlined four breaches and two corrective actions;

  • 1. The removal and killing of all field trial material to be completed by that day, and
  • 2. An internal review (by Plant & Food) of procedures to prevent this or similar non-conformances in the future to be completed by 26 January.

Even this MAF report (partly completed 24 December) appeared pressured by our actions on 12 January when Claire Bleakley, president of GE Free NZ (in food and environment) and myself visited the site with radio and TV media to show that even following the 24 December clean-up by Plant & Food, at least two plants remained. Although working with MAF-BNZ, Plant & Food was two weeks late in issuing its internal report.

The MAF-BNZ inspection of the stem on 24 December concluded that only one flower had opened due to the ‘one elongated pistil structure developed in one area indicating that an open flower had developed in the field’. That of course was the seed pod. There was no mention of other empty flower stalks, buds, or recently closed flowers as in my photograph that The Press had supplied them.

Claire Bleakley and I produced a powerpoint display from photographs and video we had both collected from the trial site as early as August 2008. Initially ERMA and MAF-BNZ dodged meeting us, which is interesting considering they are the ‘gatekeepers’ for genetic engineering in New Zealand and we had evidence of biosecurity and compliance breaches to present.

On 22 January we made three presentations. The first was to Mark Ross at Federated Farmers Wellington office and the second to Ken Robertson and Shaun Slattery at Horticulture New Zealand’s office. Organics Aotearoa New Zealand was also given a copy. These were to ensure primary producers would be well informed when reports or spin would come from Plant & Food, MAF-BNZ or ERMA. Last year’s experience with Scion’s GE trees had taught me that spin and complicity by the agencies downgraded the situation and attempted to put us in a negative light. We wanted to encourage the agencies to maintain a high level of integrity and accurate reporting.

The third presentation was to MAF-BNZ’s Howard Hamilton and ERMA’s Compliance Co-ordinator New Organisms, Susan Thomson at MAF. The presentation included information that they had not previously been aware and we made it clear that we expected a better level of agency response than accorded to me following the Scion exposure.

Plant & Food working with MAF-BNZ produced a substantive Internal review of procedures in relation to HSNO Act approval controls: ERMA Approval GMF06001 Bt Brassica Field Test, now on our website. Plant & Food Research’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) Dr Bruce Campbell and PR man Roger Bourne met with myself and Claire Bleakley in Blenheim on 9 February to discuss the report and our positions in regard future GE field trials.

It was a very amicable meeting, however the report contained material that suggests retrospective rewriting of reports and events. Some statements are blatantly wrong but there is much detail that we can concur with and the Appendix 3, Draft Audit/Check List For Plant & Food Research GM Field Trials would be useful in removing some risk from a field trial in terms of their meeting consent conditions.

However Plant & Food are now trying to suggest that by improved audit systems there will be no future problems and that they will be suitable to carry out GE field trials again. Plant & Food are essentially the same people as before albeit managed from Auckland’s old HortResearch base.

Their old Lincoln base was in the same complex as the Crop & Food GE scientists and in January I was reminded how incestuous it all is. While seeking more information I chanced on Dr Max Suckling at his base just around the corridor from the GE scientists. That was always the case and of course HortResearch have been active in GE as any CRI, but less visible due to not operating publicly-notified field trials. The same pool of people will still be involved and while collegiality is ideal in science, it hasn’t stopped the attitudes, complicity in decision-making or damage control before, nor is likely in the future.

Dr Suckling and Dr Kieran Elborough from that HortResearch base, just down the corridor from Crop & Food’s Dr Mary Christey (GE Brassica), Tony Connor (GE spuds), Colin Eady (GE onions-alliums), were half of the four person ERMA Decision Making Committee that granted the GE brassica application. Kieran was the committee chair, and Connor and Eady gave evidence in support of Christey’s application. That arrogant complicity that ignored our submissions mixed with the spin and now careful PR does not reduce the risks of GE or GE’s incompatibility with New Zealand’s best future. The whole lot stinks.

It appears that Plant & Food have strong GE intent as in a statement on the merge of the crown research institutes Crop & Food and Hortresearch into a single organisation Plant & Food Research, Dr Campbell promoted the benefit of combined GE plant research and stated, “both science companies had similar stances on the use of genetic engineering in food production, as both were using biotechnology.” Certainly no change intended.

Plant & Food’s misleading statements and conflicts of interest further show the need for GE field trials to be abandoned. Plant & Food’s spin shows desperation to continue its GE field trials, taking Aotearoa New Zealand down a path away from its current ‘clean, green and 100% pure’ branding. A revamp of the board, management and direction of this important Crown Research Institute is required if intentional false information around risky science is to be the norm.

In an attempt to cover up failings at the institute’s GE brassica field trial on National Radio on 13 January, COO Dr Bruce Campbell stated that only one flower was the issue, that a guard row would catch any pollen, and that no plants remained at the site. Dr Campbell was quite wrong to say that there was just one flower on one stem. Several flowers had opened and Dr Campbell and his staff not only had access to my photographs and their own, but had had that stem in their possession.

Each of the opened flowers/florets will have released pollen into the environment and GE seed pods may have resulted on non-GE brassicas in the area as a result of this negligence. A wide range of brassicas including broccoli, cabbage, forage kale and cauliflower would have been susceptible to insect or wind pollination. Beehives may have contaminated honey and pollen.

Dr Campbell was wrong to suggest that a guard row completely surrounding the site would intercept any pollen – it would not. Even if there had ever been a complete and robust guard or buffer row, it would never have been able to ensure that pollen would not go beyond the site. The original brassica guard row had been chopped back in August and the occasional regrowth and many weeds would not miraculously scoop up all the GE pollen released. That was never the function of the so-called guard rows.

Dr Campbell’s statement that all GE plants had been removed and destroyed was also wrong. The same sloppiness by Plant & Food Research that allowed a GE plant to flower continued with at least one experimental plant and one buffer row plant still evident among the weeds at the site following the supposed removal of all remaining live plants, when we next inspected.

ERMA’s consent conditions for the field trial state that following the growing season monthly inspections for volunteer plants must occur and any volunteers must be removed and killed. Dr Campbell stated on radio that monitoring was carried out more regularly than required, yet when I inspected the site in December the dozens of plants showing regrowth were many months old and at least one had flowered. There was no evidence that anyone had been moving in the site and I had been told the principal scientist involved had started her holidays. Plant & Food have dented their credibility by allowing fabrication to the media and in their review report.

This is the same type of sloppiness that occurred at the Scion GE pine tree trial, which also showed very poor monitoring of consent conditions.

Dr Campbell, Plant & Food’s management and board appear to be blinded to the risks of GE and need to reassess the appropriateness of their involvement with GE and in fact any positions in the ERMA and Foundation of Research, Science and Technology (FORST) funding agency.

Such blatant misinformation coming from a research organisation that is largely funded by the taxpayer shows a need for a major shake up and revamp of agricultural and horticultural science in this country. The chair of Plant & Food is also a FORST director, Dr Prue Williams ex Crop & Food head and contributor to the imperfect review report is also at that level having supplanted a sustainability focused person critical of GE. This is time for change.

Plant & Food through its predecessors have produced fantastic results in a range of non-GE areas that do not carry the risks of GE. Plant & Food and most of its staff have the capacity for better results if resources weren’t being tied up in the dangerous, risky and unproven GE area.

The fastest growing category of the international food industry is in organics and Plant & Food and FORST would be better to invest in that exciting, proven and environmentally safe growth area.

As we go to print we are waiting for MAF-BNZ reports, one from the Border Standards compliance arm and one from those investigating the biosecurity risks beyond the field test site. Then an ERMA reaction is expected. Your concerns as submitters have been proven. Writing to your newspapers, Members of Parliament and Plant & Food Research will all help move GE out of our environment and organics in.

Methyl bromide fumigation returns to Picton

Sweltering over a hot computer in the shade from a blazing Marlborough sun following the largest hole in the ozone layer ever recorded, I wait the call from Port Marlborough’s CEO as to whether they will once again allow an intended methyl bromide fumigation of export logs. What an irony that in a region with possibly the highest levels of melanoma in the world that release to the atmosphere of hundreds of tonnes of ozone-depleting methyl bromide could be considered. Soil & Health played a significant part in stopping the fumigation in September 2007.

After considerable media attention including economic impacts on the log exporter and port company, Port Marlborough has again allowed a shipment of logs bound for India to be fumigated with the highly toxic gas methyl bromide. In attempting to save face with the public, the Port has instigated a 1ppm threshold for any detections of the gas outside the port facility and a bond of $100,000 on Genera the fumigator company for compliance with the standard.

Considering that methyl bromide is invisible, odourless and tasteless, it will be pure guess as to where the gas goes on release from the ship Kang Shen, so the move by the Port Company is pure farce.

The Port is struggling to borrow more monitoring equipment to augment its one device. The Labour Department says it cannot help at short notice and there is no risk anyway. Two devices may be borrowed from Nelson and I have steered them towards others in Wellington, but still there will not be enough devices, and there has been absolutely no modelling to show where they should be placed, to ensure accurate recordings reflecting the tonnes of toxin that will be released into the atmosphere. Some political manoeuvring has curbed local protests but Soil & Health will keep the pressure against further fumigations.

Both methyl bromide fumigant release and GE field trials come back ultimately to the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) which is continuing to heavily compromise environmental and public safety for economic benefit. ERMA has thankfully begun a two-year reassessment process for methyl bromide but unless there is an alternative that is considered economically feasible, do not expect much change.

Nanotech in your kai

The poorly understood risks of nanotechnology appear to become as much an issue for consumers as the risks of genetically engineered food ingredients with provision for products of nanotechnology to be included in food. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) have just announced modification of their application handbook for food manufacturers wanting to introduce new additives or novel foods, FSANZ Application Handbook – Part 3 – Amendment No. 2 – 2008.

A standard sentence is now included regarding particle size; “the applicant must provide information on particle size, size distribution, and morphology, as well as any size-dependent properties.” This is tagged to at least each of the following:

  • In cases where particle size is important to achieving the functionality or may relate to a difference in nutritional status or toxicity, the applicant must…
  • In cases where particle size is important to achieving the technological function or may relate to a difference in toxicity, the applicant must…
  • If a published specification is not available, a detailed specification must be provided. Where the substance, in the form in which it will be present in food, is particulate in nature, the applicant must…

FSANZ may require manufacturers to provide such information, however FSANZ history of a high level of acceptance of GE-derived food ingredients, leaves us no doubt that nanotech ingredients will get the same green light, as even the most technically competent submissions opposed to GE ingredients are dismissed. This new development makes certified organic and less processed foods all the more relevant.


Clopyralid contamination

Chlopyralid herbicide is another compound that ERMA have reassessed. The good news is that weedkillers containing clopyralid were taken off the retail market for home gardeners in August 2008. The bad news is that these weedkillers continue to be used by commercial operators including councils, and that although now banned from the greenwaste/compost stream there appear to be old stocks of compost with residues, or residues still getting into large-scale composting systems. This should ease over the next season or two but is still very disturbing and annoying for those with affected gardens. By not banning it totally there will still be composting piles of contractors’ grass clippings useless for growing vegetables and cowboy turf contractors prepared to compromise public good by illegally dumping lawn clippings containing the compost contaminant into the ‘green-waste’ stream.

Over the summer, I had several instances of possible clopyralid contamination reported to me with three examples showing how widespread the issue is.

Nelson: A dedicated organic gardener with his garden in top form for the summer had damage especially in the potatoes, tomatoes and scarlet runner beans. We were pleased that presented with our advice and after initially being very defensive about the top-soil and compost supplied, the composter removed all his topsoil/compost mix from our member’s garden. He also refunded the cost and compensated him for lost time, crops, seeds, plants etc.

Auckland (Papakura): Damage to a member’s tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, beans, some lettuces, Jerusalem artichokes and a grape from compost bought in. Courgettes planted immediately adjacent to some of the worst affected plants were fine. Presented with the problem and a sample, the composting firm said they would have their heap tested and then took soil samples from the garden, later reporting back by email, “We have received the results and the Laboratory cannot find anything out of the ordinary and the results that we received would be as he would expect.”

We have yet to see the results but suggest lack of independent sampling may be an issue. The beans ultimately died, the tomato plants have ‘grown past’ the distorted leaves possibly as the root run has expanded.

Dunedin: I was able to inspect the distorted tomato plants reported to me, and confirm that their appearance was consistent with clopyralid damage. However the origin of contamination of these two certified organic tomato plants was unclear to the grower and me. We need to rule out bulking up of certified organic compost with non-certified compost/ingredients.

Herbicides containing clopyralid will still be in the sheds of some home gardeners most likely labelled as No Lawn Weeds, Clover and Prickle. Clopyralid has also been sold (and is still available to professionals) in the following forms: Clopyd 300; Void; Tango; Vivendi 300; Multiple; Contest; Pirate 300; Cardo; Versatill Herbicide; Archer; AGPRO; Cloralid 300; Radiate; and Clout. These products will now contain specific warning notices such as ‘Treated vegetation shall not be disposed of at any green waste recycling centre’, and ‘Do not use for treating turf that will be mown and the clippings used for making compost; or made available for collection for, or deposited at, a municipal green waste recycling depot’.

Clopyralid contamination has been a consistent feature for decades, regardless of public information in recent years. I have experienced contamination in my previous glasshouse production several times and yet contractors were assuring the composters that their material was ‘clean’.

While the retail withdrawal is a very good move, still getting deformed plants in our gardens is not acceptable and if these problems persist ERMA will need to take bolder steps, by totally removing the risks associated with clopyralid for municipal composters and organic growers alike.

Unfortunately ERMA hasn’t recognised that commercial and park operators were the original problem when contamination was first noticed in the United States about 20 years ago. The continued permitted use, as an agricultural herbicide is also unnecessary as there are non-clopyralid options.

The human health effects of clopyralid can include irritated skin and eyes, although it appears to have a low toxicity in the amounts likely to be encountered. Various adverse effects have been found in tests on rats and rabbits, but the effects were not acute or chronic. More research needs to be done.

What can you do?