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GM in corn

New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology

31 July 2005

GM in corn demonstrating vulnerability of our food chain

The current investigation of GM corn on the North Island should be a wake-up call to government, scientists and security professionals, the Director of the New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology (NZIGE) at Canterbury University, Assoc. Prof. Jack Heinemann, said today.

According to MAF, this is the sixth such detection in only three years. “MAF and seed importers must continue to be vigilant, otherwise we may not always be aware of what someone is accidentally or purposefully concealing in our food.”

Professor Heinemann was one of two experts called upon by the Parliamentary Select Committee reviewing procedures on GM detection following “Corngate”. He and colleagues have published detailed analyses of how easy it is to overlook such contamination even when the intention is not to conceal it. Their research appears in some of the most prestigious international biotechnology journals.

“We really have no idea how many cases go undetected, so six should be taken as the minimum number of incursions” said Heinemann. Food and feed must be protected from unwanted biological contaminants.

While this corn supply has tested positive for some GM content, MAF have not yet indicated whether they have discovered the organism responsible for the GM reading. Is it a GM microorganism amongst the corn? Is it the corn itself? If it is corn, what is the modification? These investigations are not simply bookkeeping, they are necessary to determine what threat the contaminant poses, by whom it was modified and for what purpose.”

The field of genetic engineering is changing so rapidly that our frontline biosecurity professionals cannot rely on the biotech industry and the occasional expert panel to keep them current on threats. The Institute has long advocated that the government take seriously the need to create career pathways for biosafety research professionals.

“New Zealand needs to improve its capacity to detect and identify unwanted GM organisms. Such safety-oriented research has been consistently under-funded and underdeveloped by a government science policy that increasingly values science only insofar as it promises to deliver private-sector profits,” adds Dr. Joanna Goven, Deputy Director of the NZIGE. The Crown Research Institutes’ commercial

orientation and dependence on partnerships with industry conflict with their role to carry out public-interest research that may threaten commercial interests. The government needs to consider an alternative model for biosafety research.

The Institute is also disappointed with calls to introduce new “tolerance limits” for unknown GE organisms in food and feed. “Apparently, Life Sciences Network is calling for ‘a scientifically determined tolerance level’. Until we know what was modified, how and for what purpose, there can be no scientifically determined safety level.

How is a scientist to judge how much can be eaten, or how much could escape into the environment, without causing harm? Such opinions have no scientific grounding” Heinemann said. “They may serve the economic interests of some, but they shouldn’t be associated with the science of safety.”


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