New safeguards against GM seed introduction

New measures are being developed by the Government to guard against the inadvertent introduction of genetically-modified seed, the Minister for the Environment and Biosecurity, Marian Hobbs, announced today.

Officials are working on a seed testing regime and best practice guidelines to provide backup to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (which controls the deliberate introduction of new species) and the Biosecurity Act. They will also submit a special report to the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification.

"New Zealand imports seed from a number of countries where GM crops are grown," Marian Hobbs said. "Seeds which could be genetically modified include maize, sweet corn, squash, tomatoes, and canola. We feel the need to strengthen border controls with respect to checking seed imports for possible GM presence."

Ms Hobbs said a number of seed importers are taking a very responsible approach to managing the risks of possible GM content in batches of seeds. They have in place quality assurance schemes designed to minimise the risk of GM content inadvertently getting into their products.

They recently alerted the Environmental Risk Management Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to the possibility that some imported conventional sweetcorn seed might contain traces of genetically modified material.

"Although initial testing suggested there might be minute traces of GM content, a more detailed evaluation concluded with a high degree of confidence that, if present at all, the GM material was at levels below that which can be reliably detected," she said.

"Our best advice is that it is not possible to establish a testing regime which would provide absolute certainty that a batch of seed is GM-free. Absolute certainty would require every seed to be tested and this would require every seed to be ground up to extract the genetic material for the test. It is therefore impossible to assure zero risk of contamination of a shipment of seed."

The only way to possibly eliminate the risk would be to ban all seed imports from all of the countries currently growing GM crops, a list which includes many of New Zealand's major trading partners.

"This would result in losses of an estimated $100 million a year affecting farmers and growers in many parts of the country," Marian Hobbs said.

International standards are still being developed for quality assurance or border controls covering risks of GM contamination of seeds.

"New Zealand is taking a cautious approach in establishing systems which will provide reasonable assurances for non-GM seed imports," the Minister said. "Inspection systems will be developed to enable biosecurity officers and HSNO enforcement officers to consistently inspect imported seeds, based on obtaining a high level of assurance that any inadvertent GM contamination is near the limits of reliable detection.

"We recognise this is a conservative approach and we will be looking to the Royal Commission for advice in its findings on how such issues should be treated in the future."

The new arrangements should be completed by next March when seed supply arrangements for the new growing season commence.

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