Hard News by Russell Brown

After Corngate

I agree with Nicky Hager: it isn't correct to say that the Corngate select committee report released yesterday leaves us none the wiser about the events of late 2000 and early 2001. On the contrary, as he pointed out yesterday on Checkpoint, it advances the whole story by a considerable distance.

The report contains a wealth of information on what to do and what not to do in future. That it can't tell us for certain either way whether we had a genuine accidental release of some GM corn is not the point. David Saul and Jack Heinemann, the two expert scientists tasked by the committee both criticise the testing protocols and the practices of the labs involved. But they come up with different conclusions as to the likelihood of contamination and the reasonableness of the decision that there was enough evidence to dismiss the possibility of contamination in late 2000.

Dr Saul effectively lines up with the conclusions of Otago University's Dr Russell Poulter, whose advice was pivotal in the decision to abandon initial plans to remove the suspect crops, dismissing the original positive test by CFR - which began the story - as the result of laboratory contamination and declaring it "unlikely that NC9114 was contaminated with GE seed" adding that it is "impossible to see how else this data could be objectively assessed." He believes that it was reasonable for officials to conclude in late 2000 that there was no credible evidence of GM corn.

Dr Saul is particularly scathing of the claim in Nicky Hager's book, Seeds of Distrust: The Story of a GE Cover-Up that the positive result obtained by the Genescan lab in Melbourne was of much greater value than the negative from Crop & Food at Lincoln, declaring that "This statement is emphatic, convincing and irredeemably wrong."

Dr Heinemann, on the other hand, believes that the quality of evidence available to the officials was insufficient "for making a decision of such legal, environmental, health and political importance." He cannot conclude that there was contamination, but cannot rule it out - and believes that a testing structure could and should have been designed to give more robust conclusions after the initial scare.

In my view, the stronger claims in Seeds of Distrust - the certain fact of GM contamination, and the interference of ministers - are just not borne out by the report. As committee chair Jeanette Fitzsimons put it yesterday on Checkpoint, "We all agreed that there was no evidence of ministerial interference."

The government and its officials look much more ropey on the key issue on which the select committee was split: whether they introduced a tolerance level of .05% for GM presence in crops when the law as it stood (unworkably, in the view of some players) held out a zero tolerance for any GM presence. Whether, in effect, they changed the law without the bother of changing the law - and then, later changed their minds about that change.

The report, from a majority, sums it up thus:

The policy decision was defined as a choice between two options. These are set out in various forms in several documents but perhaps the clearest is in Donald Hannah’s 1 December 2000 memorandum to Bas Walker:

(a) If any result shows a positive it is evidence of GM contamination and the shipment is rejected. This has the effect of putting the actual tolerance at the limit of the test methodology.

(b) Test results that can be reasonably quantified to be shown to be below 0.5% contamination would enable acceptance of the shipment, test results above 0.5% would result in shipments being rejected.

There is no record anywhere of an explicit decision being made between these two options at that time. It was the subject of ongoing dialogue between government agencies as the interim standard was developed.

And yet, recorded or not, there was a policy circulated to that effect. Whether it was applied - that is, whether the Novartis scare at the heart of Corngate was dealt with under it - is not clear.

Was there a cover-up? It depends on your definition of cover-up. Certainly, there was no outward indication of the behind-the-scenes frenzy at the time; the government played it down. But governments don't usually issue statements saying that they're flailing around. And we depend on good reporting to tell us when that is the case. In that sense, Seeds of Distrust was immensely valuable. We know a lot as a direct result of its publication.

But I still find it unsatisfactory that the identity of the scientist(s) who offer key judgement in the book remains unknown - surely, now, it would do no harm for this information to be revealed? Why should it remain a secret?

And - conceding bluntly that I'm not particularly proud of some of my initial response at the time - I would hope to never again see such work presented in such a way at such a time. Remember, the 3 News special based on the book was sprung on the accused, without independent scientific advice, just before an election, and it stated as stone cold fact that there was GM corn harvested with the certain knowledge of government and officials of its status, and that there was a political cover-up at the highest levels of that fact. That's pretty powerful stuff. And, as the record shows, it influenced an election.