New Zealanders are wary about genetically engineered foods. A Crown Research Institute's field trial botch-up justifies the skepticism and asks some hard questions of the scientists responsible
The opponents of genetically engineered foods are celebrating a victory today.
Biosecurity New Zealand has just confirmed that the government-owned Plant & Food Research Institute has breached the conditions of its licence to conduct field trials of genetically-modified brassicas – cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli and kale.
However, the GE Free NZ lobby may be celebrating prematurely. They say they have seen an internal Plant & Food report recommending that the brassica trial be shut down immediately – but the Biosecurity NZ investigation report announces a set of "interim arrangements" to keep it going.
This story has its beginnings in 2007, with an application from what was then the Crop & Food Research Institute [now Plant & Food] at Lincoln for approval from the Environmental Risk Management Authority to conduct a 10 year field trial on genetically-modified brassicas.
The plants would be spliced with crystalline protein genes derived from bacillus thurngiensis that have a natural insecticide effect on caterpillars. Well, it might be better than dousing the vegetables with chemical pesticides to keep the bugs at bay, right?
ERMA considered more than 950 objections to the proposal and set down what it called "strict conditions" to govern the trial, including a requirement to prevent flowering and pollen release from the plants. Unfortunately, that condition was not met.
Some of the plants were merrily flowering away last December, when an opponent to the experiment, Steffan Brown of the Soil and Health Association of New Zealand, happened on the secret site of the field trial.
According to Brown, Plant & Food Research, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests, and Biosecurity New Zealand all went into immediate denial. However, when he was able to produce photographic evidence they were forced to concede. In fact, Plant & Food even had to acknowledge that there had been another flowering and possible pollen release in February 2007.
The 2007 flowering was not revealed in the report on the trial that the Crown Research Institute had to present to the Environmental Risk Management Authority in July 2008 – another problem for Plant & Food to address.
"No unanticipated events"... "no security issues"... "no observed interference with the trial"... no problems at all was the message from P&F to ERMA in 2008.
This piece of misinformation will not endear the research institute to the regulator. In approving the brassica trial, ERMA had discounted the potential for serious damage to honey bees feeding on the brassica pollen on the grounds that the genetically modified plants would not be allowed to flower.
Further, ERMA specifically noted some objectors' concerns about another problem that had occurred during a trial of genetically-modified tamarillos, which had been conducted prior to its establishment. So, it is fair to say Plant & Food were on notice on two counts.
At the time of posting, Plant & Food Research had issued no formal statement about its botched brassica trial, or Biosecurity New Zealand's findings. There is an internal report being quoted in news media that apparently says the brassica project manager had been "over-worked" and "under-resourced". However, those are problems that should have been identified by any half-awake managing executive and do not excuse the fundamental failure to observe conditions set for the trial or to report the breaches.
Biosecurity New Zealand is still "looking at what further steps may be appropriate regarding this non-compliance". The enforcers believe it is "highly unlikely" that the flowering genetically modified brassica would cross-pollinate with crops in the area surrounding the no longer-secret site – but only the bees will know and time will tell.
The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act provides fines of up to $500,000 or imprisonment for up to three months as penalties for breaches of this kind, and directors, managers, and employers can all be held liable for breaches committed by employees. However, a half million dollar fine would be small beer compared to the costs incurred in obtaining the approval and running the project to date. Plant & Food Research will have a very significant investment of Crown funds to protect.
Now to the bottom line. The jury is out on who is winning the GM debate. The botched brassica trial vindicates some of the objections of GM opponents, but its ultimate fate is still to be determined. It certainly demonstrates some serious shortcomings in the administration and oversight of Plant & Food Research experimentation.
Probably, it vindicates the caution the new government is showing about the "Fast Forward" programme developed by its predecessors to accelerate research and development in agriculture – where most R&D effort will be directed to finding ways to reduce the cost of producing and distributing fine-margin perishable commodities at, of course, the lowest possible cost.
However, it does not diminish the value of continued scientific inquiry – or the importance of recognising the capacity for good science to be undermined by sloppy practice.