Seeds of Distrust: Foreword and Chapter 1

Seeds of Distrust, the story of a GE cover-up


In 1999 I co-authored a book about the relationship between government, business and public relations companies. Our conclusion was that secrecy allowed the then National Government to abuse power as it allowed state agencies to mislead the public and play politics in pursuit of their preferred policies. After nine years in office, National had become arrogant and complacent in its exercise of the power that citizens had conferred on it.

Three years later there is a different government which, on various constitutional and democratic issues, has acted better. However, on issues of secrecy, susceptibility to business interests and misuse of executive power, some of the same issues arise as did with the previous government.

This book is a case study of how the Labour-Alliance Government handled an issue that they preferred remain secret and where they were making decisions of which they were not wholly proud. As a case study, I am not suggesting that this is typical of all or even most decisions. But it is precisely in the case of hard issues, controversial issues and issues where there may be partisan advantage in acting questionably, that democratic checks and accountability are most important. Unless governments are challenged, they drift towards the arrogant and complacent exercise of power that characterised the nine-year-old National Government in 1999.

The controversial subject of my 1999 book was logging of New Zealand’s native forests, which at that time had become a bitter political conflict. The present book is about an equally controversial subject: genetic engineering.

I should state clearly that I am not claiming to have anything expert to say about genetic engineering. That issue is the context rather than the subject of the book. This story is about the importance of freedom of information, public accountability and the great disease of modern politics: the assumption that it is legitimate for those with power to manage and manipulate the news.

I will also state my personal view about genetic engineering, which is mixed. I do not assume that all gene technology is bad. I see it as being like New Zealand’s ‘nuclear free’ policy, which rejects the needlessly risky and completely immoral sides of nuclear technology but does not stop nuclear medicine in hospitals. With any major and fundamental new types of technology, there are huge potential risks. The problem is that if something went very wrong, it would likely be the result of some surprising interaction of factors or some unforeseen biochemical effect that science would only properly understand in retrospect.  It could take generations to realise what had happened and why.

My personal uneasiness with the technology stems from the fact that a lot of genetic engineering is being done by companies in a hurry to cash in on commercial applications, and hurried science is not always good (or safe) science. Thus the key issues are caution and the degree to which decision makers focus on the public interest compared to short-term gain. With a lot of genetic engineering being driven by a short-term profit perspective, I believe the public is justified in feeling concern and even distrust about what unpredicted costs may fall upon ordinary people and the environment. Trust and responsibility are the central themes of this book

The difficult thing for politicians in government is that they have, at the same time, two separate and often conflicting roles. Most visible are their party political roles, where they are trying to stay in power, look good to the public and implement their policies. But most important are their formal ministerial roles as players within and protectors of constitutional processes. 

One of the fundamental constitutional issues is freedom of information. There is a huge political advantage for a government from deciding what information is released on an issue, how it is released or whether it is released at all. But, at the same time, the right to information – the public being able to know what is going on – is the foundation of democratic government.

We get very used to government secrecy and the public relations tactics of selectively releasing information in ways that suit those in power. We are left with the feeling that, if not actually being lied to, we are often not getting the whole story. My view is that although we are used to it we should not accept it as right. I believe that government information does not belong to the Government of the day, to do with it what it likes. It is the public’s information about the public’s business, which we have entrusted to the Government to manage for us. As such, secrecy and public relations ‘spinning’ of information should be viewed as a fundamental abuse of government power.

To be fair to Ministers and government departments, most of the time on most subjects they quietly and faithfully fulfill their public duties. It is on controversial issues, on issues that could be embarrassing and on subjects where the politicians or their allies stand to gain or lose advantage, that this sort of abuse of power occurs.

Besides trust and freedom of information, the other theme in this book is the role of private public relations companies in helping their corporate clients influence government. Most Ministers will say that industry PR people might help their clients have their say to Government, but that they do not give special influence to business over citizens. I think they are wrong.

My impression is that on a controversial issue like genetic engineering – where huge companies, world-wide agendas and lots of money are involved – the public relations strategies of the big players often have more influence on government decisions than public opinion, science or the public interest. That is the struggle of democracy in a business-dominated world.

Even the names people use for the technology have been ‘spun’. The original name is ‘genetic engineering’ (GE), referring to techniques of shifting around or removing genes in organisms’ cells, or making ‘transgenic’ shifts of genes between different types of organisms. As public suspicion grew towards some of the technology, US companies like Monsanto started to use the new, blander term ‘genetic modification’ (GM). Some US food companies have since moved to stay ahead of public concerns and also use the term ‘genetic enhancement’. For this book I will use the original name adopted by genetic scientists, ‘genetic engineering’.

The book is not intended as a personal criticism of the individuals involved, and so I have mentioned a minimum of people by name. Some people deserve to do some soul searching, but most of the people in the story (including named people) were not acting unethically. They were just busily following instructions from their superiors. The book is about the systemic problems that lead people in authority to make socially irresponsible decisions.

At various points through the book I have left questions which I hope companies and individuals involved will answer publicly. Here and in other places I would have liked to seek their views to include in the book. The reason I did not was that I wanted to avoid possible delays to publication by someone who would prefer the revelations did not occur. Even when the contents are factual and fair, it is relatively easy to tie up a book in the courts. Therefore I was advised to avoid pre-publicity. However I have sought to ensure accuracy by talking to a range of insiders, confirming details with outside experts and by relying heavily on documentary evidence. Also, I have included a set of the Government’s own papers at the end of the book – Cabinet documents, media materials and correspondence – so that readers can judge them for themselves.

I considered carefully whether to release the book before the New Zealand 2002 general election. An election is the natural time to raise issues of accountability and a Government’s record. I decided that election year was good but rushed to complete the book well before the campaign period. When the early election was called, and genetic engineering had become a very party political contest, I seriously reconsidered whether it was appropriate to release the book in the midst of political campaigning. In the end I decided that, as is the theme generally in this book, the public had a right to know.

Chapter 1 – Nine Foot High Warriors

The pro-genetic engineering ‘Life Sciences Network’ opened its presentation to the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Modification on Wednesday, 1 November 2000, with an attack on its opponents. William Rolleston said the Network had been formed to counter ‘uninformed and unbalanced’ public debate where science was being ‘misinterpreted and ignored’ by anti-genetic engineering groups and the media. He argued that ‘economic arguments are persuasive for the acceleration of our effort in the field of GE, and not for holding back.’

The Life Sciences Network had formed six months earlier and hired offices in the same building as the Royal Commission from which to run its campaign. Headed by a public relations consultant and supported by a large budget from undisclosed sources, the Network has arranged and co-ordinated most political pressure for genetic engineering in New Zealand since.

The presentations that Wednesday were confident – all about how, in Rolleston’s words,  ‘responsible scientists and responsible businesses’ were using genetic technology for the benefit of New Zealanders. Safety, predictability and caution were the themes of the day. Any public concerns, he explained, were the result of lack of understanding of science or misleading statements from environmental groups. It was ‘real science’ vs ‘junk science’.

The Network had hired a Maori consultancy firm to open the day with a karakia and then explain why Maori opposition to genetic engineering was an unsophisticated ‘formative reaction’. They argued that historically Maori were quick to adopt new technologies (which is true), but also that ‘Maori were practising genetic engineering long before settlement in this country’. They said that in Maori mythology the decision by Tane and his brothers to separate the god parents Rangi (sky) and Papa (earth), from one into two, was ‘a nice sort of metaphor… perhaps the very first in the Maori conceptualisation, [for] genetic modification.’

They spoke of stories in Maori history about nine foot tall warriors. ‘Maoridom, I believe, were already in the processes of reproducing warrior machines in their history…. If they were nine feet tall, there must have been some genetic modification in the processes to create such a being and such a warrior.’

The next Life Sciences witness, flown from Switzerland for the hearing, was ecologist Klaus Amman, a practised advocate of genetic engineering. With a large grey beard and attractively imprecise English, he flicked rapidly through slides – ‘Here, nice graphs, no time to explain properly…’ – and had the Commissioners laughing at a joke about how, if he were an insect, ‘to be honest I would like to be on holiday doing organic farming’. 

The real problem in the GE debate, he said, ‘that I have to explain here clearly and bluntly’, is the ‘powerful protest corporations’ that ‘often are not interested in scientific facts any more’. He said that while some other industries had hidden worrying facts to avoid a public backlash over their activities, ‘I don’t think you can put the genetic engineering industry in this position’.

The nuclear industry hid back a lot of evidence, the tobacco industry did, the chemical industry did, but the biotech industry never ever held back any negative evidence of genetic engineered crops. That you cannot bring up, and if you can bring it up I’m getting very mad at these people and I’m the first to advocate it.

By strange coincidence it was on the very day of this hearing – the first of November 2000 – that the first serious incident concerning genetic engineered crops in New Zealand was discovered. Despite Professsor Amman’s confidence in the genetic engineering industry, the story was hidden and – until the publication of this book – remained hidden from the New Zealand public.

The story began, on that Wednesday, when routine testing of a large batch of sweet corn seeds being imported from the United States indicated that they were contaminated with genetically engineered seeds. Most seeds entering New Zealand at that time were not tested at all, but because some of the sweet corn crops were being grown for a company that guaranteed its produce was ‘GE free’, the food production company had introduced testing to ensure no genetically engineered seeds were used.

By the time the test results arrived, many thousands of genetically engineered seeds had already been planted out and the GE corn plants were quietly growing in the midst of non-GE crops in three different parts of the country. In several weeks the GE plants would flower, spreading their pollen to the surrounding conventional crops and, not long after that, the GE corn crop would be appearing ready to eat in shops.

It could not have happened at a worse time for the genetic engineering companies. Only two months earlier news had gone around the world about the ‘Starlink’ GE corn strain. Starlink corn, grown in the United States as stock food but not approved for human consumption, had been found mixed in with approved food quality corn supplies. The GE-contaminated corn was first found in taco shells on sale in US shops, then in many other food brands, and a few weeks later in exports arriving in Japan. The Starlink corn contamination had not only been highly controversial, damaging US public confidence in the big pro-GE US food companies, but had also cost the companies concerned tens of millions of dollars as they recalled products from shop shelves.

In New Zealand, just the year before, there had been controversy over another kind of genetically engineered food. Leaked public relations plans had shown a PR company advising that breeding of genetically engineered salmon, possible escapes into the wild and problems in the experiments should be kept secret from the public. Public trust had been undermined by revelations that the PR firm Communications Trumps had said ‘Issues such as deformities, lumps on heads etc should not be mentioned at any point to anyone outside’. The reasonable public reaction was to question why they should trust assurances about the safety and careful control of genetic engineering when they saw a company just hiding things it did not want the public to know.

Worst of all, this first (albeit accidental) major release of genetically engineered plants into the New Zealand environment – the unapproved, uncontrolled and probably unlawful release of GE sweet corn – had occurred right in the middle of a Royal Commission that would make recommendations about the future of genetic engineering in New Zealand. The Commission was still receiving public submissions when evidence of the contamination appeared. Neither the Government nor the companies concerned wanted anything to stir up public concern about genetic engineering at that time.

The proper course was obvious. The crops could have been pulled out and the rest of the contaminated seeds recalled. The public could have been informed of the accidental release and of the action taken. There could have been a strategy of building public trust by openness and proving good faith in control of genetic engineering.

None of these things happened. There was a more tempting option. Secrecy. Company staff and goverment officials were sworn to secrecy, even Ministers were threatened that no leaks would be tolerated. Almost every part of the story in the coming chapters was kept secret from the public.

Seed contamination is not a small side issue in the debates over genetic engineering. It is currently the main way that uncontrolled genetically engineered organisms are being spread around the world. Before we get into the New Zealand story it is worth looking overseas, where GE contaminated crops had been appearing in other countries and where other governments had been reacting quite differently to the problem.

Large-scale commercial use of GE crops began in a few countries in about 1996. At that time much of the public debate centred around whether the GE crops would spread to contaminate conventional crops. The companies vigorously dismissed these concerns. Gradually, though, more and more evidence appeared suggesting that this was exactly what was happening. In many cases it was left to public interest organisations like Greenpeace to uncover the evidence. 

In 1998, for instance, Greenpeace arranged for GE testing of corn cobs from a farmer in southern Germany whose crops were growing next door to a crop of Novartis GE corn, the same company as in our story. The samples were analysed at the Gene-Scan laboratory in Freiburg. The tests found that the Novartis GE corn had cross-pollinated with the neighbouring conventional corn, affecting 5% of the plants at the field border and 1% at 10m inside the conventional crop. Neither Novartis nor the German authorities had warned neighbouring farmers of the GE plantings.

In 1999, as customer resistance to GE food grew in Europe, a Dutch food importer found that supposedly organic tortilla corn chips from the United States contained GE corn contamination and refused to buy them for the premium organic produce prices. The Wisconsin organic food company, Terra Prima Inc., said it had to assume the contamination came from GE pollen but that it had not been told about any nearby GE crops. Numerous cases like this appeared at that time, raising concerns among conventional and organic farmers in countries with GE crops growing that their businesses were at risk.

Jeff Stein, director of regulatory and government affairs for Novartis was quoted in the Hudson, Wisconsin article about the Terra Prima case. He said ‘organic farmers could reduce the risk of contamination if they follow standard farming practices like creating a buffer between neighboring fields and planting at different times than their neighbors.’ In other words, it was not the GE seed companies’ responsibility. If an organic farmer ‘wishes to ensure no corn pollen in his fields, he needs to take the necessary precautions’, he said – but this was assuming of course that the farmer knew about the neighbouring GE crops.

During the northern growing season in mid-2000, shortly before the New Zealand crop contamination, more and more cases of seed contamination were appearing, not least the Starlink corn in the United States. 

The more stories appeared in the news, the more nervous ordinary people became. Most family shoppers are not experts in biotechnology and have to trust companies and governments to look after their health. If they start to doubt that the companies and authorities are being suitably careful, it is thoroughly rational to start to be distrustful and cautious. In Europe and other countries, public resistance to GE food grew very quickly and profit-conscious food companies and super-market chains responded rapidly.

But when it came to GE seed contamination, it was quite different. The same GE corporations and lobby organisations that had argued for years that GE crops would not contaminate conventional crops and that the critic’s fears were unfounded (anti-science, extreme etc), suddenly changed their tune. Now they were arguing that not only was GE contamination of conventional seeds supplies widespread, but it was ‘inevitable’. 

The problem they had denied was now presented as the status quo that the world would just have live with. The companies were not responsible, they did not have to act to avoid the problem and, conveniently for them, the controversial line between conventional and GE crops would become more and more blurred. Instead of acting to stop seed contamination, they tried to ensure that governments (like New Zealand’s) would not introduce rules banning contaminated seed imports. This is the context in which our New Zealand story occurred. 

But various countries responded to the new problem of GE contaminated crops quite differently than our Government. An example is Austria that, like New Zealand, prides itself within Europe for having good environmental standards.  In April 2001, shortly after the events in this book, Austrian Greenpeace had two sets of independent GE tests conducted on samples of corn seed imported from the United States. A large batch of conventional Pioneer corn, PR39D81, was found to be contaminated with two forms of GE corn: the same Novartis Bt11 corn as suspected in New Zealand contamination and Monsanto MON810 corn. The corn was being sold by a chain of shops called Lagerhaus (Warehouse).

After Greenpeace published the test results, the Austrian authorities at first did not react and the seed continued to be sold. On 2 May 2001, Pioneer put out a press release saying that the PR39D81 batch was not contaminated. However, behind the scenes the authorities had been doing their own tests and discovered that ‘significant’ contamination was present. Like the New Zealand tests, the test results showed uneven contamination concentrations, with many results zero or under 0.1%, various around 0.1% and some higher. 

In June the Austrian regional governments announced that Pioneer must withdraw the contaminated seeds from shops, that the farmers would be asked to destroy the contaminated crops on a voluntary basis and that the regional governments would compensate them for the lost crops. Pioneer was to then compensate the governments. It was a very different attitude to that in New Zealand.

In total 180 tonnes of contaminated seed had been sold. The Austrian authorities managed to locate 530 affected farmers and paid a total of 2.76 million euros compensation. Pioneer refused to concede any liability and in late 2001 had still not paid any compensation. Since this time Austria has strictly tested seed imports, and backed this up with tests on the resulting local harvests, showing that it is possible for a government to be serious about GE crop contamination.

The same issues arose in Greece, six months before the New Zealand case. In mid-2000 about 14,000 tonnes of cotton seed was planted in Greece, mostly in the Trikila region, and then found to be contaminated with a GE cotton variety. No genetically engineered cotton is authorised in the European Union. It was the third case of GE contaminated seed to hit the headlines in Europe that summer, the others being contaminated oilseed rape and contaminated corn.

The Greek Vice Minister for Environment, Elias Efthimiopoulos, announced on 20 July 2000 that all the contaminated cotton crops had to be destroyed. His Ministry issued instructions that where possible this be done before the plants flowered. 

It easily could have been the same in New Zealand.