Hard News by Russell Brown

New mysteries

One of the tests of major political party leadership - and Prime Ministerial potential - is being able to smoothly run one's own ascension, by dint of coup or otherwise. If you can't do that, how can you run the country?

So what, then, are we to make of Don Brash's curious tilt at Bill English, into which he appears to have had to be pushed by the press and his political allies? Speaking of whom, what price the Act party, which clearly has a hand in this, eventually offering Brash a spot in the run-on team if his bid fails? He'd presumably find more people who wanted to stay up late talking about Hayek there …

I guess I should see what the gossip is, being as how I'm in Wellington for the week. I'm helping judge the Tuanz Interactive Awards, then changing into a suit to MC the awards function on Wednesday night. That will be interesting. Bill Ralston once urged me to sign up with one of those after-dinner speaking agencies and cash in, but I can't think of anything worse than banging out a set speech for some suburban Rotary club on a Tuesday night, not to mention having to eat with the buggers. But where I have an affinity for the subject, as I do with these awards, I don't mind doing a turn. And they are paying me.

Staying with mysteries, what are we to make of the stray GM enzyme that has turned up in Zealand-sourced dough being used by the Subways chain in Japan?

Well, a few basics: the enzyme in the dough is not a genetically modified organism. It's a protein manufactured in a process that uses a genetically modified bacterium to express that protein. (A similar process is also used to make about 30 different medicines approved for use in New Zealand.)

Over the years quite a number of such enzymes have been widely approved for use in food production, including in Europe and New Zealand, which this one is. In fact it's slightly odd that the enzyme hadn't been approved in Japan.

The enzymes have catalytic properties that improve the performance and reliability of the dough. As far as I know, the enzymes used in food production are naturally-occuring, but manufacturing offers a more economical and reliable way of getting them than the old way - typically extracting them from the viscera of animals. (The natural source of rennase, which is necessary for cheese-making, comes from the stomachs of slaughtered calves. More than half Britain's cheese is made with GM-derived rennase - which, for Jews, has the advantage of being kosher - but most New Zealand producers use either animal rennet or a vegetable rennet that is suitable for some cheeses.)

Ironically, some of the enzymes used in industrial baking used to be present in much greater quantities in the natural grain, but have been steadily bred out in pursuit of optimum starch content.

The industry-friendly (and US government-funded) rundown here looks at the history and scope of enzyme use in processing.

This is already being talked up by GM opponents as a traceability issue, but it's hard to tell if that's the case. After all, Subway Japan discovered the enzyme was used in the dough after it asked for documentation from Yarrows, the New Zealand company making the dough. What prompted it to ask, four years after it started importing the dough? Was it, as Marian Hobbs mused, perhaps a well-timed anti-GE sting? Who knows?

It is clear, however, that more scrutiny than ever will go on the chain of traceability, and that the precise origin of even minor ingredients - which four years ago possibly just didn't seem like an issue - will become a commercial, if not a safety, issue.

Black Hawk Down in Iraq. It has a scary ring to it. The Guardian offers an extremely downbeat analysis of the occupying forces' fortunes, claiming two dozen attacks against US soldiers every day, and a precipitate fall in support from ordinary Iraqis.

And a little earlier on, they almost got Wolfowitz. The US deputy defense secretary was only one floor above where missiles hit the supposedly impregnable al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. Whatever ignomy was represented by Wolfowitz having to flee down the stairs, it could have been a lot worse.

I had wondered whether the resistance forces – whoever the hell they are – had twigged that attacks on Iraqi citizens and aid organizations were counterproductive, and were concentrating on offing Americans again. But no. The Red Cross was next, more dead Iraqis. The Americans are now in a terrible position: fewer and fewer Iraqis support their presence, yet they cannot leave without the risk of a national bloodbath.

Amazingly, it gets worse. In a stinging story Christian Aid has claimed that about $US4 billion in Iraqi funds earmarked for reconstruction “has disappeared into opaque bank accounts administered by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-controlled body that rules Iraq.” This appears to contravene both the UN resolution that released the money in the first place, and British government promises that such funds would always be handled transparently. Perhaps there’s an element of cock-up here. That doesn’t make it acceptable.

Back home, even his own party is beginning to do the unthinkable: blame Rumsfeld.