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New Safeguards Against GM Seed Introduction

19 December 2000 Media Statement


New measures are being developed by the Government to guard against the inadvertent introduction of genetically-modified seed, the Minister for the Environment and Biosecurity, Marian Hobbs, announced today.

Officials are working on a seed testing regime and best practice guidelines to provide backup to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (which controls the deliberate introduction of new species) and the Biosecurity Act. They will also submit a special report to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

“New Zealand imports seed from a number of countries where GM crops are grown," Marian Hobbs said. "Seeds which could be genetically modified include maize, sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, and canola. We feel the need to strengthen border controls with respect to checking seed imports for possible GM presence."

Ms Hobbs said a number of seed importers are taking a very responsible approach to managing the risks of possible GM content in batches of seeds. They have in place quality assurance schemes designed to minimise the risk of GM content inadvertently getting into their products.

They recently alerted the Environmental Risk Management Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to the possibility that some imported conventional sweetcorn seed might contain traces of genetically modified material.

"Although initial testing suggested there might be minute traces of GM content, a more detailed evaluation concluded with a high degree of confidence that, if present at all, the GM material was at levels below that which can be reliably detected," she said.

"Our best advice is that it is not possible to establish a testing regime which would provide absolute certainty that a batch of seed is GM-free. Absolute certainty would require every seed to be tested and this would require every seed to be ground up to extract the genetic material for the test. It is therefore impossible to assure zero risk of contamination of a shipment of seed.”

The only way to possibly eliminate the risk would be to ban all seed imports from all of the countries currently growing GM crops, a list which includes many of New Zealand's major trading partners.

"This would result in losses of an estimated $100 million a year affecting farmers and growers in many parts of the country," Marian Hobbs said.

International standards are still being developed for quality assurance or border controls covering risks of GM contamination of seeds.

"New Zealand is taking a cautious approach in establishing systems which will provide reasonable assurances for non-GM seed imports," the Minister said. "Inspection systems will be developed to enable biosecurity officers and HSNO enforcement officers to consistently inspect imported seeds, based on obtaining a high level of assurance that any inadvertent GM contamination is near the limits of reliable detection.

"We recognise this is a conservative approach and we will be looking to the Royal Commission for advice in its findings on how such issues should be treated in the future."

The new arrangements should be completed by next March when seed supply arrangements for the new growing season commence.


Questions and answers

19 December 2000

1. What seeds are imported into New Zealand?

Currently 26,601 species of plant seeds can be imported into New Zealand. Many of the consignments are extremely small and may be imported infrequently. A relatively small number of species (eg, cereals, pulses and grass seeds) are imported more frequently and in large quantities.

Some of these seeds are imported to grow plants and crops for our own use or for export. In addition, companies in Asia, the European Union and North America use New Zealand to grow newly developed cultivars or help develop new cultivars of many staple crops. This effectively allows northern hemisphere companies to cut the production time from one year to six months. This seed multiplication business is important for New Zealand growers, particularly in Canterbury, and is believed to be worth about $30 million a year.

2. Which seeds might be genetically modified?

New Zealand imports seed from a number of countries, including the United States and European Union countries, that grow both conventional and genetically modified crops. At present only maize, sweet corn, tomatoes, squash, canola, and soybean are both imported as seed in significant quantities and commercially available overseas in genetically modified form. However, soybean seed is imported in extremely small amounts. New Zealand grows significant amounts of the other crops each year:

3. Why is this a concern?

Importing a genetically modified organism (GMO) without approval is a breach of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 and the intent of the voluntary moratorium. Approval from the Environmental Risk Management Authority is necessary before genetically modified organisms can be field-tested or released in New Zealand. A voluntary moratorium on applications to the Authority for most field testing and any release of genetically modified organisms is in place until August 2001. In this case, we are dealing with imports of conventional rather than GM seed, so the question of an application does not arise.

4. What testing for genetically modified material is carried out on imported seeds?

To date there has been no mandatory testing conducted in New Zealand for genetically modified content in seed crops. However, anyone seeking to import this material is advised of the need to obtain approval under the HSNO Act if the importation is viable living material (eg, seeds, plants) and either a new species or genetically modified.

5. How can we avoid GM content in conventional seed?

A number of seed importing companies have quality assurance systems intended to deliver GM-free products. However, there are currently no international standards for either quality assurance or for border control testing for GM material, though European countries are in the process of developing such standards. In some countries there is little requirement to distinguish between GM and conventional crops, and the number of GM crops commercially available on the international market is growing. It is not possible to provide absolute certainty that a particular batch of seed is GM-free, except by:

 banning imports of seeds from countries which routinely grow genetically modified crops, which would reduce the risk (though not give absolute certainty) and would have significant economic implications or
 requiring every seed to be tested, which means grinding up the seed to extract the genetic material, and so destroying its ability to grow.

6. Do other countries allow any genetically modified material in seeds or food labelled GM free?

Only a small number of countries have established explicit acceptance levels relating to GM material in conventional seed. These have been set at a tolerance level that the major seed producing nations can meet. In Australia both seed and food is regarded as GM-free if it has less than 1% genetically modified material. Switzerland will tolerate 0.5% GM content. The European Union is expected to accept a level of GM material somewhere between 0.5% and 1%. Japan accepts up to 5% GM content in food.

7. Does New Zealand allow genetically modified material in food?

Food is governed by standards laid down by the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA). Any GM food which has an ANZFA approval (as well as certain others under an interim arrangement) can be legally sold in New Zealand. In addition labelling standards agreed to in July 2000 allow any one ingredient in a food to contain up to 1 per cent of genetically modified material where its presence in the ingredient is unintended.

8. What level of GM content will New Zealand tolerate in conventional seed?

To establish a border control system of sampling and testing we need to allow for a very low, but explicit level of accidental contamination. The interim proposal is for a maximum level of 0.5% GM content in maize and sweet corn, which is close to the limits of reliable detection. Studies will be carried out to see whether this standard is justified and/or practicable for other crops. It is intended to establish a full range of interim standards by March 2001, because this is when we expect forward orders for seed to start being placed. These standards will need to be in place before the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification has reported, but will be reviewed on the basis of any relevant recommendations made by the Royal Commission.

9. What border control system is proposed?

Clear sampling and testing procedures will be developed for all relevant crops. The system will also cover documentation such as import declarations and audit checks by the enforcement agency. Best practice guidelines will be developed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) and the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA). Any necessary enforcement action will primarily be taken at the border by MAF, acting under the Biosecurity Act. In addition, enforcement officers can be appointed under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act to issue compliance orders if any action is necessary in relation to seeds or crops inside the country.

10. What is the interim protocol?

The interim protocol is voluntary and will remain so until there has been full consultation with industry and the formal format for the protocol has been developed. It involves random audit sampling and testing of seed imports which have already been certified GM-free prior to arrival in New Zealand. All seed is tested prior to importing into New Zealand. Testing will be based on taking seed samples and looking for known genetic indicators for modification. This testing is known as PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing.

The acceptable level of GM presence is 0.5 percent in sweet corn. The selection of this level has been informed by several factors including:
- best agricultural practice and comparison with (proposed) international levels
- an initial assessment of the ability to test to this level
- and a cursory assessment of the health and environmental effects that may arise.
A comprehensive risk assessment has been undertaken in setting this level.

11. What is a new organism in terms of the HSNO Act?

A “new organism” is a new species coming into New Zealand for the first time. It includes genetically modified organisms (GMOs), whether imported or developed in New Zealand, as well as plants, animals and other species not already legally present in this country. If a species or GMO was not here before the HSNO Act came into effect on 29 July 1998, it has to be approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA). The Act covers GMOs that can reproduce (eg, seeds) but not genetically modified food, which is covered by the Food Act.

12. Who administers the HSNO Act?

Technically the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act is administered by the Ministry for the Environment. However, in practice the operating agency is the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA), which was created by the Act and carries out most functions (including deciding whether a new organism can be approved). ERMA New Zealand also monitors enforcement and conducts investigations into major incidents. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) under the Biosecurity Act has an enforcement role in respect of new organisms and genetically modified organisms.

13. What does the voluntary moratorium cover?

A voluntary moratorium has been in place since June 2000, and is scheduled to expire in August 2001. It covers applications under the HSNO Act to release and, with limited exceptions, field test genetically modified organisms. This means that potential applicants will not submit applications to ERMA for approvals of this kind. The moratorium covers the period during which the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification is considering the strategic options for New Zealand with respect to the issue of genetic modification.

14. What does the Biosecurity Act cover?

The Biosecurity Act 1993 has the purpose of protecting New Zealand from species that could cause harm to its natural resources. The Act is administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF). The Ministry’s Biosecurity Enforcement Unit employs experienced law enforcement officers who are equipped to respond to all serious breaches of the Biosecurity Act.

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