- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

AUCKLAND, New Zealand With general elections 15 days away, the lackluster campaign exploded this week with claims in a new book that New Zealand experienced an accidental release of genetically engineered (GE) sweet corn and that the government of Prime Minister Helen Clark covered it up.

Genetics has been the major issue with Mrs. Clark's Labor government, which has said it would allow a moratorium on GE crops to lapse next year. The Green Party says that if that happens, it will bring the government down.

"Seeds of Distrust: The story of a GE cover-up" by Nicky Hager contends that in November 2000, GE-contaminated crops were released into New Zealand and have been allowed to grow and be processed for consumption.

Mrs. Clark who has been married for more than 20 years to Dr. Peter Davis, a professor of public health, but uses her maiden name responded angrily to Mr. Hager's assertion.

"It is an outrage, these conspiracy theories," the prime minister said, adding that she was frustrated that GE was debated emotionally rather than factually. "There are none so deaf as those who don't want to hear it, of course."

Environment Minister Marian Hobbs was adamant, insisting that she was not aware of any seeds from the shipment having been planted.

"There is no proof that there are [GE] contaminated plants planted OK? There is no proof. If there were proof that there were, they would have been [pulled] out."

Wednesday's food alarm was the second blow to Mrs. Clark in recent days.

Last Friday, police said there was a prima facie case for bringing criminal charges against Mrs. Clark for signing a painting she did not create, but because it was for charity, they would not press charges. They revealed that Mrs. Clark's staff had destroyed the evidence, and that she had not been completely cooperative with the police.

Mrs. Clark threatened the media with defamation suits if they disseminated comments about it made by opposition leader Bill English of the National Party.

Mr. Hager, a leftist researcher, rose to prominence with a previous book outlining the extent of the Echelon spy network involving the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand a quasi-alliance dating to World War II. It led to a European Parliament inquiry.

His publisher, Craig Potton, is a Green Party candidate, but Greens leader Jeannette Fitzsimons said she knew nothing of the book until Wednesday and was "shell-shocked."

The Green Party, which Labor still needs for support in Parliament, has said it will pull down the minority Labor government unless a moratorium on the commercial release of GM organisms is extended.

[The alliance of the two parties seemed under strain yesterday as the New Zealand Herald headlined: "Clark in fury at GM ambush."]

Simmering tensions between Labor and the Greens erupted into open warfare yesterday over claims that the government covered up an accidental release of genetically modified (GM) sweet corn.

After scraping into Parliament with the minimum 5 percent support in the polls three years ago, the Greens now register 11 percent and they hope their stand against genetic engineering is gaining ground among voters.

They want New Zealand a major exporter of food and agricultural products to Australia, Japan and the United States to declare itself a GE-free food market and become an organic-farming nation by 2020.

Farmers appear split on whether the government's moratorium on the release of GM organisms should be extended.

The Sustainability Council points to a Lincoln University survey in 2000 showing that 49 percent of 656 farmers believed New Zealand should seek GE-free status, while 39 percent disagreed.

The council, mostly exporters, argues that widespread release would damage New Zealand's international trade with the European Union, which is unwilling to buy GM produce.

But Federated Farmers President Alistair Polson said the group surveyed its members last year and almost all of the nearly 1,000 responses had supported the Royal Commission's "proceed with caution" recommendation.

With studies, reports and surveys coming up with different and conflicting conclusions, the voters likely will be guided by emotion rather than fact, compelled by such visions as the two-headed salmon that resulted from botched GE research here.

This week, New Zealand-born Hollywood actor Sam Neill joined the cacophony of confusion surrounding the possible benefits or risks of GM to a country that sells itself to the world as a clean, green, natural wonderland.

"I would urge the present government and the incoming government to seriously reconsider this lifting of the moratorium, and to give the people of New Zealand time to consider and to debate this most critical of issues," said Mr. Neill.

"I'm yet to be convinced by this technology. My feeling is that this is the most serious issue that we face in New Zealand today," he said.

"We simply don't know enough about the long-term effects of GE on our environment, on our health and, indeed, on our own genetics."

"It seems the only safe precaution we can take at this time is to extend the moratorium at least five years," said the star of the "Jurassic Park" film series, about rampaging dinosaurs revived from ancient DNA.

The country's most active pro-GM lobby group, Life Sciences Network, quickly counterattacked. The group, which includes scientists and celebrities, restated its support for the Royal Commission's "proceed with caution" recommendation on the genetically modified products.

Mr. English, leader of the main opposition National Party, said Mrs. Clark should explain why her government had tried to "cover up its incompetence, instead of explaining to the public what happened .

"It looks like a pattern of behavior first she makes the wrong decision, and then sets out to cover it up. This one is one the public do regard as significant."

Mr. Hager said the government was told in November 2000 that a 5.6-ton consignment of sweet-corn seeds from the U.S. company Novartis Seeds (now Syngenta) had been found to be contaminated with GE corn seeds.

But by the time Mrs. Clark was told, thousands of GE plants were already growing, Mr. Hager said.


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