By Patrick Crewdson
THE DOMINION POST
Opponents of genetic modification are outraged that nearly two tonnes of contaminated sweet corn have slipped through border security in a quarantine breach.
The Agriculture and Forestry Ministry has begun an urgent investigation to find and eradicate the seeds, most of which have been planted.
The seeds could be used to sow an area of an estimated 400 hectares - about four times the size of Wellington airport.
A total of 1.8 tonnes of contaminated corn was imported from the United States by two companies in consignments arriving on October 26 and November 7.
It was mistakenly cleared by MAF's quarantine service.
The consignments carried certificates showing negative GM test results, but also included documentation showing that the parent batch the seeds originated from had tested positive.
The discrepancy was not discovered till Wednesday.
MAF biosecurity director Peter Thomson said it was likely that any genetically modified material present in the imported corn was at "very low levels".
He refused to name the companies involved.
The ministry had tracked down most of the corn and would be working this weekend to find the rest.
Seeds had been planted in locations in the North and South Islands.
It would not be difficult to remove the corn because it was still young and would not have flowered, he said.
"We've dealt with these situations before and done so successfully, so I'm confident we can track it down."
The ministry's investigation would look at whether the importers had acted illegally and if they were liable for any penalty.
But if the fault was found to lie with the ministry, it could have to compensate farmers for crop losses.
Mr Thomson said the ministry would be reviewing and tightening border procedures. Staff who mistakenly cleared the corn could face disciplinary action.
Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said there was no excuse for the "extremely disturbing" breach.
"I'm appalled that it could get across the border in this day and age after all the previous experience.
"Someone's fallen down very badly not once, but twice."
The incident showed that MAF was failing to take the risk of GM contamination seriously and "stern action" should be taken against the people responsible, she said.
Ms Fitzsimons, who chaired the parliamentary select committee inquiry into Corngate, the inadvertent import of GM seed that sparked a political row during the 2002 election campaign, said she thought that a robust system to detect and eliminate contaminated seed had been developed.