FAQs related to Importing Genetically Modified Organisms
MAF is the enforcement agency for the HSNO Act. MAF approves containment facilities for working with new organisms and genetically modified organisms to MAF/ERMA New Zealand standards, and checks facility operator compliance with HSNO approvals and their controls. MAF also provides assurances through import health standard requirements that unapproved organisms are not imported into New Zealand.
There is no evidence of a risk to human health or the environment. The variety of GM maize detected in the large seed lot is widely grown in the United States and Canada. It is approved for human consumption in many countries, including New Zealand, although no one has ever applied to the Environmental Risk Management Authority to grow it here. Furthermore, it is present in low levels – fewer than 50 plants out of every 100,000.
The question of compensation is currently being worked through by MAF, the grain industry and Treasury. Until this analysis is complete, no determination on compensation is possible.
The New Zealand GM testing regime is one of the strictest in the world.
MAF requires proof of testing for GM before seed can be cleared at the border for entry into New Zealand, and if there is any indication of GM content the seed is not allowed in. A consignment that has been tested offshore in a MAF-accredited laboratory, according to the method in our import protocol, will not be tested again unless there are genuine grounds to suspect that GM seeds are present. This means that seed from non-GM as well as GM producing countries are required to be certified GM-negative before it is allowed into the country.
With more and more GM crops being grown and traded around the world, there will be more opportunities for GM seeds to be present in seed supplies. On the other hand, the systems to separate GM and non-GM crops are likely to improve, driven both by commercial pressures and demands from governments for assurances.
It is very likely that there will continue to be incidents like this one, where GM seeds are present unintentionally at concentrations near the limit of detection. However, with appropriate actions and ongoing assurance systems, it should be possible to keep these incidents to a minimum.
No. None of the GM corn has entered the food chain and there is no cross-pollination risk.
No, any effects would be negligible. Corn is a highly domesticated plant that cannot survive without human intervention. It will not readily grow in uncultivated sites or where it has competition from other forms of vegetation. Corn plants do not become weeds, even in parts of the country where maize is grown intensively, and none of the genetic modifications detected would change that situation. It would be extremely unusual to see a maize plant growing away from a cultivated or recently harvested field. Corn is not related to any native or other plants in New Zealand and does not hybridize with them. Corn is wind-pollinated rather than insect-pollinated so honey bees do not usually visit corn plants. Given the low concentration of GM seeds found, the amount of GM pollen would have been so small that it is extremely unlikely that it would could have affected honey bees or be detectable in any honey or other bee products.
It is difficult to predict long-term effects. It is difficult to detect very small concentrations of GM seeds in consignments of non-GM seeds. This uncertainty may reduce the willingness of seed companies to operate in the New Zealand market, which could significantly affect our supply of seeds and ultimately, the competitiveness of some important agricultural industries. On the other hand, many people argue that New Zealand would benefit from maintaining its status as a non-GM producer, and that the opportunities from non-GM production will outweigh any costs.
Yes, it is possible. No testing system is perfect - there is always a chance that GM seeds may not be detected, especially at very low levels of concentration.
New Zealand imports approximately 750 million sweet corn and maize seeds each year. The only way to guarantee that no GM seeds are entering New Zealand is to test (and therefore destroy) every single seed.
Maize/sweet corn seeds and oilseed rape seeds are the most likely to inadvertently contain GM seeds. Four crops make up more than 99% of the world's commercial GM crops: soybean, maize, cotton, and oilseed rape. New Zealand does not grow cotton and grows only very small amounts of soybeans. Relatively large quantities of maize/sweet corn and oilseed rape seeds are imported into New Zealand, including from countries that grow GM varieties of those crops.
Firstly, it would have serious negative effects in several agricultural industries, including dairying, and would seriously damage and possibly destroy those industries that rely on imported seeds. Secondly, it would still not provide a guarantee to stop all GM seeds.
Many of New Zealand's agricultural industries rely on imported seeds - the price and quality of seeds affects their competitiveness. For example, maize is grown for food and is also an important stock feed in the dairy, pig and poultry industries. Many of the best quality seeds come from countries that grow GM crops, because they are also the world's major seed producers. Banning seeds from those countries would limit access to seeds with desirable characteristics (such as even ripening) and would raise the price of seeds because there are few alternative sources. New Zealand only allows maize seeds to be imported from fourteen countries (Australia, Canada, Chile, the USA and ten European countries). Most comes from the USA and Chile with smaller amounts from Australia and Europe. The USA and Canada both grow large areas of GM maize. Chile allows GM maize (usually imported from the northern hemisphere) to be grown for seed exports. France and Germany grow very small areas of GM maize and are conducting trials of GM maize. The other European countries are not major maize producers.
New Zealand farmers use both locally produced and imported seeds. For pasture seeds such as ryegrasses and clovers, we are world-leaders - breeding and producing our own seeds and exporting about $60-70 million worth of them around the globe. But for maize and many vegetable crops, the best seeds come from large and expensive breeding programs in the major agricultural producing countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Because of our size and climate, New Zealand cannot produce seeds that match the quality and value of those imported seeds. There are other reasons as well: some crops lose their vigour after several generations so new varieties must be imported from time to time, and many of the best seeds are hybrids that do not breed true - the next generation is unlikely to have the qualities that make the variety desirable. New Zealand farmers realise that to be internationally competitive, it is essential that they can participate in the seed breeding and multiplication industry, which must import seeds.
If it is determined that it is contaminated this seed will be destroyed or re-exported.
There is no cross-pollination risk because the crops have only just germinated.
The documentation that accompanied these consignments only indicated the presence of promoter or terminator sequences, not a specific construct. MAF’s investigations will seek to identify the nature of any GM constructs.
Please see the media release - Sweet corn investigation update 1
All planted corn has only recently been planted and germinated. MAF has secured all unplanted seeds.
MAF is consulting with corn growing experts to ensure appropriate measures are applied to the fields in question.
MAF will include additional controls in the harvest process to minimise the probability of the formation of a self-sustaining population of GM Zea mays. Protocols covering these controls will be written and distributed to growers.
MAF will also perform follow-up visits to sites.
It is unlikely, but possible, that consignments of lucerne seed could contain very low levels of GM seed. In the USA, the proximity of GM crops to non-GM crops is not regulated. For example, lucerne is pollinated by bees. Bees could carry pollen from GM fields to non GM fields. Also mixing of small amounts of GM seed could occur via harvesting equipment, seed cleaning plants, and seed storage facilities.
The seed sample will be tested using a DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) test called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which detects specific DNA sequences unique to the genetic modification. The GM lucerne varieties contain the herbicide tolerant gene (CP4 EPSPS) and a promoter gene (FMV) from the Figwort Mosaic Virus, which conventional varieties do not have. A positive result for either of these genes indicates the presence of GM in the seed sample.
The three MAF-approved testing laboratories supply a test that will detect Round-up Ready GM lucerne, by specifically targeting a part of its gene construct which is virtually identical with the construct in other glyphosate-tolerant crops. If any GM lucerne is detected during testing, MAF will deny the consignment of seed entry into New Zealand. The laboratories will monitor the test’s effectiveness as part of normal validation procedures.
To date, only the US has approved the commercial production of GM lucerne. However, seeds are traded world-wide. Seed from this year’s harvest in the US may be sold to other countries and the ensuing seed crop may enter New Zealand next year. Furthermore, New Zealand growers decide which countries they source seed from according to the end use for their products. The lucerne and alfalfa breeding industry in the US is large, and provides growers with access to specialised varieties.
Implementation of a testing protocol can provide assurances that imports do not contain GM seeds, while still allowing trade to continue. Banning all imports of lucerne and alfalfa seed would not be justified, given that a GM test is available.
In the US, genetically modified lucerne could cross-pollinate with non-GM lucerne, and the modified traits may be inherited by the next generation. Lucerne is a perennial species and feral plants grow along field edges and roadsides in the main seed production areas in the US. Consequently, wild plants containing GM genes may persist in these environments.
Little is known about the potential for persistence of these GMOs in the New Zealand environment. However, GM lucerne is not approved by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA New Zealand) for release into the New Zealand environment.
The GM lucerne varieties have been modified to be tolerant to glyphosate herbicides (the principle ingredient of RoundupTM and several other herbicides) , to assist with weed management for the production of hay and forage in the field. The varieties contain the glyphosate tolerant gene (CP4 EPSPS) and a promoter from the Figwort Mosaic Virus (FMV).
MAF and ERMA New Zealand have the ability to prosecute under the both the HSNO and Biosecurity Acts. This is considered on a case-by-case basis.
Working closely with ERMA New Zealand, MAF would work to ensure that the GM lucerne, and commodities likely to harbour it, were isolated and devitalised so that no seeds could germinate.
ERMA New Zealand supports the Environmental Risk Management Authority in its decision making role for applications to import, develop, or field test new organisms; or to import or manufacture hazardous substances. These applications are made under Part V of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.
Testing typically takes two to seven days, depending on laboratory workloads. Most importers arrange for testing to be conducted offshore prior to shipment of seeds, so delays at the border are not anticipated.
The importer is required to meet the costs of testing. The testing costs between $340 and $560, depending on which of the three MAF approved laboratories conduct the testing (USA, France or Australia).