Hard News by Russell Brown


So it's school holidays, the kids spent all day yesterday bickering, it's raining, I've got deadlines up the wazoo, I've put my back out, and - oh goody - GM's back on the agenda.

In the weird way GM events have of gravtitating, last week's Erma report was followed not only by the BSA's decision on TV3's Corngate special (see below for comments on both) but by the mysterious but genuine discovery of inappropriate genetic material in a pizza topping mix shipped to Japan. Let's get this out of the way first: who the hell puts sweetcorn on pizza?

Various people are having words in my ear about all this. Does this latest discovery - which involves seed from Novatis/Syngenta, the same company that provided the Corngate seeds - lend weight to the claim that that fateful 1999 shipment did contain a little GM material? I think it does, but it's not a slamdunk. One event does not prove another, and we don't even know whether the two seeds lots have anything in common but brand. In the end, you're left with the question of whether politicians and officials wilfully lied about the GM status of the shipments, or changed tack after they received (doubtless welcome) expert advice from Dr Poulter that the test results they had were not reliable. I'm inclined to wait for the select committee inquiry to wash up.

I do wish the Greens could find someone other than Sue Kedgley to front on this. Every time she starts flapping her arms I start closing my ears. Mind you, Marian Hobbs needs to get some new cue-cards before she does any more interviews.

It ought to be pointed out that under the new European Union regime, both the original seed batch (assessed this week at not more than 0.05 per cent Bt11 corn, or five seeds in 10,000) and, so far as I can see, the subsequent corn product, would officially be regarded as GM-free and passed for planting.

The European threshold for soya seeds, for example, is 0.7 per cent, more than 10 times what was reckoned to be in the local batch. In New Zealand, a zero-tolerance regime applies - the discovery of a single seed will prompt the destruction of an entire shipment. It is simply wrong to say the New Zealand applies lax rules to seed imports. (The controversial "interim protocol" briefly and illegally applied while the Corngate panic was taking place behind closed doors, would have allowed a 0.1 per cent presence, making it still a far stricter protocol than Europe's.)

It is extremely likely that low-level presence of GM seeds in commercial seed lots is not new. What has changed is the viability of testing for extremely low concentrations, so we've started to find it. The only way around this issue is to either stop importing seeds - which would actually cause the collapse of certain crop industries - or try and get them somewhere else. The proposal advanced by GE Free NZ - making companies like Syngenta wholly liable for any damages if GM seed is found in a non-GM batch - would simply result in seed companies refusing to do business with New Zealand.

This has nothing to do with the lifting of the GM moratorium and it's not a food safety issue either: products made from Bt11 corn are approved for consumption in this country, and I sincerely do not think they're hazardous to health. The greatest fear is fear itself, in the form of consumer sentiment in some of our export destinations. It doesn't matter if Europeans think GE will make them grow horns - if they shy away from it in their supermarkets, it's a genuine issue.

I still think the regulatory regime developed in the wake of our Royal Commission is a model one - few other jurisdictions have anything as good. But good law must still be well executed, and the government ought to be at pains to win public confidence in its infrastructure before and after October, when the moratorium on applications for GM release ends.

I've also had a few emails (and a lengthy and concerned answerphone message from a friend) regarding my recent venting about the overnight introduction of the new system for immigration applications. Oh, alright then. Let's see how it works in practice. But I still feel like my would-be immigrant friends have been treated shabbily by the system, not just at present, but all the way along, and I'm still embarrassed by it.

I fear this is about me: the attention-deficit geeks on Slashdot are discussing a claim that getting information causes a "dopamine squirt" in humans, a rush similar to that given by nicotine and other drugs. You can even be addicted to information.

Lots of people thought I'd like Government Information Awareness, an MIT-based project aimed at maintaining "a symmetry of accountability" in the face of the recent rollback of privacy in the US by collecting and compiling "information on individuals, organisations, and corporations related to the government of the United States of America." Yes, I do like that.

Only weeks after that lovely Vanity Fair spread, the British public's trust in Tony Blair continues to plummet, along with support for involvement in Iraq. Latest poll is in The Times.

In other poll action, Canadians are happy, which is possibly partly because, as a Naomi Klein column points out, suddenly, they're interesting.

And has this poll given us all a look at the likely Democratic challenger for the US presidency? Howard Dean ("a pro-gay, pro-gun peacenik" according to Radar) achieved a storming and surprising result. Two reasons for this: one, he's Internet-savvy and runs not only a website but a weblog. Two: he's not an insipid, compromised crypto-Republican like most of the other Democrat prospects. Interesting …