Fif­teen years ago New Zealan­ders turned out in force to protest ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered food, but it has snuck onto our su­per­mar­ket shelves nonethe­less.

Element - - Contents - By Re­becca Rei­der

The GE-free move­ment was one of the great ac­tivist suc­cesses in New Zealand his­tory. In 1999, 20,000 peo­ple marched down Queen Street, calling for a ban on ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered crops. The move­ment was broad-based. “Moth­ers were con­cerned GE crops would af­fect their ba­bies and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions,” re­calls Claire Bleak­ley, pres­i­dent of ad­vo­cacy group GE Free New Zealand. In polls, over 70% of New Zealan­ders have sup­ported keep­ing ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms (GMOs) out of the coun­try.

The pro­tes­tors’ side won. To this day, “we are GE-free in our food and en­vi­ron­ment, and it makes our ex­port mar­kets trust us,” Bleak­ley says.

But while GE-free sta­tus con­fers re­spect on New Zealand prod­ucts over­seas, many New Zealan­ders re­main un­aware that ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied food im­ports have crept onto su­per­mar­ket shelves here at home.

Un­der the Food Stan­dards Code, all ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) food in­gre­di­ents must be la­belled as such. But no one cur­rently en­forces that. “Since 2003 there’s been ab­so­lutely no mon­i­tor­ing or en­force­ment of GM food la­belling in New Zealand,” says St­ef­fan Brown­ing, Green Party MP and spokesper­son on GE.

Back in 2003, in a spot au­dit, the New Zealand Food Safety Au­thor­ity as­sessed 231 food man­u­fac­tur­ers and 38 im­porters. It found that nearly 30% of the man­u­fac­tur­ers, and 37% of the im­porters, lacked proper doc­u­men­ta­tion of the GE sta­tus of their in­gre­di­ents. No fol­low-up in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been done since.

New Zealand now im­ports large quan­ti­ties of food in­gre­di­ents from GMO-dom­i­nated coun­tries. Corn, soy, canola and cot­ton­seed are the main ones, ac­count­ing for 99% of GMO crops world­wide.

These crops tend to be­come filler in­gre­di­ents in pro­cessed foods. Un­der cur­rent law, re­fined prod­ucts such as canola oil and corn syrup do not have to be la­belled with their GE sta­tus.

One ma­jor use of im­ported GE in­gre­di­ents is in an­i­mal feed. New Zealand chicken farm­ers now re­port that it is dif­fi­cult to source guar­an­teed GE-free feed at all.

“Many New Zealan­ders re­main un­aware that ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied food im­ports have crept onto su­per­mar­ket shelves here at home.”

Who de­cides?

De­ci­sions about ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods eaten in New Zealand are rarely made on Kiwi soil. Food Stan­dards Aus­tralia New Zealand (FSANZ), based in Can­berra, as­sesses GE foods for both coun­tries. FSANZ has ap­proved more than 80 vari­a­tions of the main ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered food lines for hu­man con­sump­tion. It has never re­jected an ap­pli­ca­tion from a GE food pro­ducer.

New Zealand does not have an equal voice in this process. FSANZ’s 12-mem­ber board con­tains nine Aus­tralians. In the fi­nal ap­proval, New Zealand has one vote, while each Aus­tralian state gets one vote.

“FSANZ’s method of as­sess­ing GM foods on be­half of Aus­tralia and New Zealand is recog­nised as in­ter­na­tional best prac­tice,” says Deb­o­rah Roche, deputy direc­torgen­eral at the Min­istry of Pri­mary In­dus­tries (MPI).

GE op­po­nents ar­gue, how­ever, that FSANZ has strong ties to the biotech in­dus­try. Last year Aus­tralian sci­en­tist Peter Lan­gridge, a long-time con­sul­tant to FSANZ on GMO food safety, ac­knowl­edged that his re­search cen­tre re­ceives A$3-5 mil­lion an­nu­ally from DuPont, one of the world’s largest GM seed com­pa­nies.

Once FSANZ as­sesses a GMO food line, the ap­pli­ca­tion comes back to MPI in New Zealand for re­view. “MPI re­views all GM ap­pli­ca­tions on a case-by-case ba­sis and its opin­ions are science-based,” Roche says.

How­ever, on a le­gal level New Zealand’s re­view process is a token ges­ture, in light of cur­rent trade agree­ments. Un­der the Trans Tas­man Mu­tual Recog­ni­tion Ar­range­ment, New Zealand must ac­cept any food which is al­lowed to be sold in Aus­tralia.

Is it safe?

Re­cent an­i­mal feed­ing stud­ies have raised ques­tions about the safety of GMO foods. In 2012, Ital­ian sci­en­tist Gilles-Éric Séralini and co-au­thors pub­lished con­tro­ver­sial find­ings com­par­ing rats raised on GE and non-GE corn. The GE-fed rats de­vel­oped in­creased tumours and liver and kid­ney dis­ease. Ser­alini’s pa­per was later with­drawn by the jour­nal in which it was pub­lished – an un­prece­dented de­ci­sion – af­ter sci­en­tists claimed his study lacked the sta­tis­ti­cal rigour to sup­port his con­clu­sions; how­ever anti-GMO ac­tivists cried foul play, claim­ing that in­dus­try sci­en­tists had in­flu­enced the de­ci­sion. The find­ings have been re­pub­lished in another sci­en­tific jour­nal.

In 2013, Aus­tralian sci­en­tist Dr Judy Car­man and her team found that pigs fed on ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied corn and soy showed an in­crease in se­vere stom­ach in­flam­ma­tion.

It is not known whether such health ef­fects could stem from ge­netic ma­nip­u­la­tion, or from agri­chem­i­cals. Many GM crops are de­signed to be her­bi­cide-re­sis­tant, en­abling farm­ers to spray whole fields with weed-killing tox­ins. Her­bi­cide use has risen dra­mat­i­cally on these crops.

As a re­sult, new her­bi­cide-re­sis­tant weeds have evolved, lead­ing to the use of in­creas­ingly toxic her­bi­cides. Re­cently, FSANZ ap­proved for con­sump­tion a GMO soy­bean strain de­signed to be sprayed with 2,4-D – one of the in­gre­di­ents in Agent Orange.

Not­ing a lack of aware­ness of GE food in New Zealand, this year St­ef­fan Brown­ing has trav­elled the coun­try, hold­ing pub­lic meet­ings to elicit pop­u­lar sup­port for GE food la­belling. His mo­ti­va­tion is sim­ple, Brown­ing says: “New Zealan­ders de­serve to know what they’re feed­ing their chil­dren.”

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