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HARD NEWS 19/07/02 - And the Rain Stopped ...

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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... it's daft, really, the Worm - an electronic mood meter driven by 100 flakes who haven't worked out how they're voting yet. The usual swinging-voter lollies - crime, immigration and the Treaty - inevitably hit the hot button. Or, rather, hot knob.

But I enjoyed TV One's leader's debate. Holmes was on his best form - witty and well-informed - and, with all the significant party leaders lined up, it finally started to seem like a real election campaign.

The public actually got a good look at the people asking for their votes. Helen Clark had clearly been trained up to go for maximum worm time - and to squelch Bill English wherever possible. But it was Peter Dunne's sweet, reasonable murmurings that really seemed to please the punters. Crikey: he might break two per cent at this rate.

Elsewhere, Laila Harre looked like someone who should continue to be in Parliament, if not a minister, but probably won't, unless the Westies deliver her an electorate result, Jim Anderton hardly got rolling and Jeanette Fitzsimons got a look at middle New Zealand, and vice versa. Prebble and Peters were on normal service and English, as I was the first to say, is the new Bill Rowling.

Best of all, they talked about the economy, education, rural doctors and marijuana law reform - anything but, more geee-bloody-eeee. I suspect I am not alone in thinking so. But it's a tar-baby, it really is.

Ah, Corngate. Right, one last try: I still regard Dr Russell Poulter as a crucial figure in all this, because he shows that the officials and ministers considered highly expert scientific advice in their decision to clear the seeds, rather than pure political expediency - a possibility not contemplated in Seeds of Distrust.

I spent a bit of time this week making phone calls to his peers and to his head of department to find out what other scientists thought of Dr Poulter. He is regarded as strong-willed and individualistic, a maverick even, but the endorsement of his competence in both the theory and the practical elements of testing was universal.

A molecular biologist told me he believed Poulter was "almost certainly correct" in his review of the test results. David Saul at Auckland University agreed that the positive result could have been the result of microbial contamination from soil, especially - and this is ironic - if there was an organic farm nearby, and a seed bag had been opened. He said that the results were at the limit of detection, that the tests were better now and that November 2000 was "ancient history in the field of molecular genetics." He believes, however, that, among other things, we'd have to ban international travel to be truly GE-free.

I also spent time seeking independent evidence of the science Poulter has cited in the past week - as much as a fairly bright lay person with good Internet skills can, anyway. Everything checked out.

I think if the news organisations that went out with the story had decided to seek independent scientific advice, this story would have emerged quite differently. They way it did emerge - dropped like a bomb on the election campaign - was simply wrong.

For the record, this is what Jeanette Fitzsimons said to me last week: "I would certainly listen to what Russell Poulter says, because I have found him helpful in the past on scientific issues." I understand he helped her with technical advice on xenotransplantation and that they are on cordial terms. So, yes, he came in on Heinz-Wattie's account, but he doesn't seem like the guy you'd go to for a whitewash.

Unfortunately, none of us can similarly scrutinise the experts cited in the book because we have no idea who they are. This is not to suggest at all that they have been invented, but it is a problem that we do not know how many of them there were, their expertise, their potential interests or what they knew about the conduct of the tests.

I actually think that Poulter's been fairly brave about sticking his head up above the ramparts. Peter Wills and Robert Mann should look to their own principles after floating innuendo about a fellow academic that appears to be quite without foundation. In doing so, I think they risk tarnishing their own GE-free cause. I've had quite a few emails from scientists since I started on the GM issue - and they clearly have quite enough of the fear already.

So the book's central contention - the fact of contamination - is at best unsustainable and at worst just wrong. I really don't believe there was.

That does not, however, mean there's no story. Ministers and officials made a decision that ultimately appears to have been correct, but arguably didn't meet the precautionary principle in the HSNO Act making it.

As they ran around trying to fill a policy vacuum, officials at least flirted with a "voluntary interim standard" - and ain't that a phrase you come up with when you don't quite know what you're doing? - that would have breached the law as it stood.

Was there a cover-up? Well, the soothing public announcements did not reflect the frenzy going on behind the scenes. Novartis's PR person tried to influence the way things were framed, with partial success - no more of that please. We didn't know this before last Wednesday, and that is why work like Nicky Hager's is and will continue to be valuable to us.

But Nicky's work is essentially about institutions and paper trails, and the book tends to overlook the way people acted as people, rather than as representatives of organisations. There was a furious turf war between MAF and ERMA. There were people who were clearly confused. There were clashes of ego and scientific pride - including, I suspect between Poulter and Donald Hannah of ERMA. A more rounded view would have revealed this - I'd still like to see that story, actually.

But - and I'm depending on newspaper reporters here - the released documents do not appear to show great political pressure on officials: they got in a tizz all on their own. And throughout the book, things are given the worst possible spin.

Example - and this is nothing to do with evidence, just an indication of approach - the comparison with similar alarms in Europe, especially in Greece. On page 20 of the book, Nicky notes than in July 2000, the Greek environment minister declared that 14,000 hectares of cotton containing up to two and a half per cent GM plants would be destroyed. "It could easily have been the same in New Zealand," the chapter concludes, wistfully.

This is what actually happened in Greece: Contamination was detected by an independent lab. The Greek seed companies tried to cover it up and only did a second test after being forced to by a series of court orders rbought by Greenpeace. (In New Zealand, Cedenco immediately reported its suspicions to the proper authorities.) Even then, with conclusive evidence of widespread contamination - 77 batches tested positive in the end - the Greek government allowed the seeds to be planted.

Under pressure, the Greek government initially undertook to cordon off 560 hectares that tested above one per cent - or 25 times what was even suspected in New Zealand. By July 2000 - after the plants had been flowering for a month - the Greek government finally announced that it was ordering the destruction of 14,000 hectares.

But in September, the Greek ministries of agriculture and the environment reversed the decision and said that none of the crop would be destroyed after all. This breached European law, but the EC did nothing about it. The problem, apparently, was that there was no liability framework.

And that's what we can take from this cautionary tale. A policy vacuum is dangerous. You don't want to be making decisions on the hoof, where you'll tend to be more open to instant solutions. Liability is probably the hardest part, as evidenced by the release of the Law Commission's amazing non-report on GM liability this week. No, it wasn't being suppressed by Pete Hodgson, it really was just pretty poor, and the commission, having been handed it back, declined to try and improve it. As I've noted before, until we have all this in place, it would not be wise to lift the moratorium.

Finally, for the record, there is now a border monitoring system. MAF got the gig and tests are conducted by several good-quality overseas labs - not including GeneScan's broken-down kit in Melbourne. Apparently Cedenco and Heinz-Wattie further tested their plants in the ground and came up negative.

If nothing else, Corngate has provided a circuit-breaker. Both the public and the political parties, I think, were a bit shocked by last week. We do, after all, have to find a government out of this. And the Greens and Labour - who have, paradoxically, both been damaged by it - are apparently beginning to realise that after next Saturday they will probably have to find some middle ground and work with each other.

Jolly good, then. Nice to see the All Blacks grind it out over the Wallabies to get one hand back on the Bledisloe Cup, and really nice to see the All Whites take their big chance to beat Australia. And nicest of all, after 52 days or whatever it was, it has temporarily stopped bloody raining. It's been a stretch to get Aucklanders to consider anything rationally under those circumstances.

I trust that the new, crisp winter weather will last us through the week. It had better, because I'm turning 40 tomorrow - much too old for student radio, I know, but still younger than Chris Hocquard. And I don't *feel* that old. So, after a slap-up catered lunch at home, a few close friends and I will watch the All Blacks win again and then head out for a few hours of mildly irresponsible behaviour. Nothing much will matter till Monday. See y'all out on the tiles, then - G'bye.

ENDS

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