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Notes on the select committee's 'Corngate' report

[The report is a PDF, so links below only go to the front page; the relevant page can then be reached via either scrolling down or entering the number in the page field at the bottom]

  1. The committee has been prevented from getting to the heart of the 'Corngate' inquiry because of the obstruction of Syngenta (formerly Novartis), which repeatedly refused to allow us to talk to GeneScan, the Australian laboratory that did the crucial interrupted tests on the seeds in which they were convinced they had found GE contamination.

    Syngenta had a confidentiality agreement with GeneScan and refused to release them or to obtain information for us. We know there will be laboratory notes from the first stages of testing which would cast considerable light on that part of our terms of reference which asks us to enquire into "the likelihood that the corn was contaminated" but we cannot obtain them.

    We also repeatedly asked about the nature of the breakdown and how long it would have taken to fix so that the tests could have been resumed as GeneScan clearly anticipated in their memo. We received no reply to this question. At the request of a committee of Parliament the Speaker can summons witnesses but that cannot be enforced on overseas persons.

    It seems obvious that if Syngenta believed that data would have led us to the conclusion that the corn was not contaminated, they would have allowed GeneScan to talk to us. This has led to our unanimous conclusion that the testing regime must allow the government regulators access to all laboratory information. (See Recommendation 6: on pg 7 (click through))

  2. While the committee has worked constructively to make 10 unanimous recommendations for the future, and has agreed on some conclusions about faults in the processes followed in 2000, it has not been able to agree on two key issues about the past; the likelihood that the corn was contaminated and whether officials set a tolerance level of GE contamination in order to allow it to grow.
    The split is 6:6 so there is no majority or minority view. The five Labour members are supported by the United Future member; the six members from the Greens, NZ First, National and Act take the opposite view. (Split conclusions: pg 114-124)
  3. There are crucial differences between the oral evidence received by the committee and the documents dating from 2000. I and five other committee members have based our conclusions about what happened strictly on the paper record at the time, rather than on oral evidence to the committee produced three years later.

    The Government position relies on oral evidence from officials that the decision to allow the corn to grow, and more of the seed to be planted, was based on the decision by a MAF official that there was no evidence of contamination; and that therefore there was no tolerance of allowable contamination. However, we have been unable to find a statement anywhere in the voluminous paper record that anyone made a decision that contamination had been disproved (para. 299-300, pg 100-101). The key statement is that contamination, if present at all, is below 0.5% and so meets the standard set.

  4. The fact, confirmed by officials in the hearings, that no-one even telephoned GeneScan to find out when the interrupted tests could be resumed or what basis there was for GeneScan's conclusion that they had found contamination but could not yet determine the level, is in my view conclusive evidence that a decision was made to set a tolerance level that would permit the corn to be accepted. This level was set at 0.5%. However, because the tests were unfinished and we could not get access to GeneScan or its data the contamination cannot be confirmed. (para. 288-291, pg 99) The negative tests that were completed would not outweigh a positive test. We have been given evidence that there are many reasons why testing can fail to find GE contamination.
  5. It is incredible that neither ERMA nor MAF phoned GeneScan during the two weeks after their preliminary results were reported orally to ask what the problem was with their equipment, when it would be fixed and the tests resumed (as GeneScan clearly intended should happen) and when the final results would be ready. (para 294, pg 100). It suggests that by the time the decision was made to allow the seeds to grow it was no longer relevant whether they were contaminated as long as it was below 0.5%.
  6. We were also handicapped by there being no notes or minutes of the 1st December 5pm meeting of departmental chief executives and senior staff, chaired by Mark Prebble, which seems to have been the crucial decision-making meeting.

    An earlier meeting that day had decided that the decision about whether or not to set a tolerance would be referred to the chief executives. The Government position is that Richard Ivess, MAF director of plant biosecurity, made the decision himself on what to do with the corn, but in oral evidence he confirmed that the meeting earlier that day "concluded with the decision on whether to have zero tolerance or an acceptable level of contamination being those higher up".

    It was immediately after the meeting chaired by Mark Prebble that he advised the PM " is no longer certain that we have firm evidence of GM seed being present in the seed lot..." (paras 83-86, pg 31-32).

  7. We have confirmed that the first public information about the incident was more than two weeks after the corn had been cleared for growing and planting, and the day after Parliament had risen for the Christmas recess. It was in the form of a press release about the development of a new protocol for seed testing at the border and said very little about the Novartis seed incident.

    Testing results were never made public until after the publication of Nicky Hager's book. Cabinet was not asked for its approval for the tolerance level and was asked only to "note" certain actions by officials. In my view this was an attempt to avoid public scrutiny.

Key sections of the committee's the report:

  • Split conclusions: paras 365-406, pg 115-121
  • Unanimous conclusions: paras 355-364, pg 114
  • Recommendations: pg 7-8
  • Missing samples: paras 278-283, pg 97-98
  • Uncompleted tests and undisclosed information: paras 284-295, pg 98-100
  • Communications with Cabinet: paras 113-117, pg 37-39
  • Public communications: paras 118-131, pg 39-43
  • All of Chapter 2, for those who have time.
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