Investigation of possible GM plant containment breach finds no grounds for prosecution

18 June 2010

The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) has completed its investigation into the discovery late last year of suspected genetically modified Arabidopsis thaliana plants found growing just outside a containment glasshouse on the Plant & Food Research Ltd site at Lincoln.

Acting Deputy Director General Infrastructure, Capability and Compliance, Warwick Foran, said the investigation found no evidence of a failure to take reasonable care or of negligence and was unable to determine a cause of any escape. There are no grounds for prosecution under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996 or the Biosecurity Act 1993.

"MAF treats any breach of containment seriously. Accordingly, we have conducted a robust and thorough investigation in this case.

"The investigation found that while there had been technical breaches of conditions surrounding the operation of the containment glasshouse, these were promptly remedied, and there were no grounds for prosecution."

Due to the complex nature of this investigation, we also sought Crown Law advice on our decision."

"In this case, the immediate actions taken controlled the alleged breach and prevented the likelihood of escape. No more suspected GM plants were found."

"MAF enforces the HSNO Act, treating any likely breach of containment as a serious matter that requires full investigation. ERMA New Zealand approves and sets the controls on the use of GMOs in containment under the HSNO Act. We will work with ERMA New Zealand to determine whether any changes to approvals or containment standards should be made in light of this investigation."

On 23 November 2009, Plant and Food Research Ltd notified MAF of a possible breach of containment and that testing was underway on the plants found outside the glasshouse to determine whether they were GM.

MAF launched its response, on the basis that it was suspected that GM Arabidopsis had escaped the containment glasshouse and required immediate action to maintain containment.

MAF ordered the removal of any Arabidopsis plants close to the glasshouse, the spraying of herbicide around the site to prevent any other seeds germinating, and the testing of plants from other parts of the site to determine that no spread had occurred.

Footpaths were treated, the surroundings of the glasshouse gravelled and soil treatments were used to mitigate the low risk that other seeds could germinate. The interior of the glasshouse was sterilised and a review of site procedures initiated. No further Arabidopsis plants were found.

MAF subsequently launched an investigation into how suspected GM Arabidopsis might have escaped containment.

Arabidopsis is a small common annual plant belonging to the Mustard family. It is also a weed species widely used within plant science, both as a research model and as a teaching aid. It is considered a low risk organism that is commonly chosen as a research tool because it can not displace or affect the viability of other plants or cross pollinate.

Photos available on request.

Media Contact:
Helen Keyes, Communications Manager, 04 894 0161 or 029 894 0161


23 November 2009
  • Plant and Food discovered Arabidopsis plants growing immediately outside the PC2 plant house and commenced immediate containment procedures.
  • MAF notified of a possible breach of containment of GM Arabidopsis.
  • Plant and Food begin exploratory DNA testing on the plants to determine if foreign DNA sequences are present.
25 November 2009
  • Plant and Food notify MAF that two plants tested positive for the presence of foreign DNA sequences.
  • On the basis of strongly suspecting that GM Arabidopsis may have escaped containment, MAF launches an incursion response to ensure containment is maintained and limit any further likelihood of possible escape.
4 December 2009 MAF's Enforcement Directorate begins investigation
8 December 2009 MAF issues a Compliance Order under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996. The order requires Plant and Food to:
  • test the remaining plant samples collected earlier for the presence of genetic modification;
  • treat the soil in risk areas, either through removal and deep burial, or sterilisation on site (e.g. with steam); and
  • treat hard surfaces in risk areas (e.g. footpaths and concrete edges) to kill any remaining plants and seeds.
21 December 2009 Actions specified in the Compliance Order completed
20 January 2010 MAF makes final inspection to confirm all corrective actions have been implemented
7 May 2010 MAF's Enforcement Directorate investigation finished and draft Investigation & Offence Summary report completed
27 May 2010 Crown Law advice received
31 May 2010 Investigation & Offence Summary report finalised


Last Updated: 22 September 2010

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