GM maize – Questions and Answers

Published: Wed 12 May 2004 09:31 AM
GM maize – Questions and Answers
11 May 2004
1) Why did MAF accredit the United States laboratory Biogenetic Services Ltd (BGS) to test seeds being exported to New Zealand?
New Zealand law has zero tolerance for genetically modified organisms that have not been approved to grow here under the provisions of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996. MAF requires all seed for which a commercial genetically modified line is available that is to be imported into New Zealand to be tested before it gets here to ensure there is no unapproved GM seed present. As there have been no approvals to grow GM seed in New Zealand, if GM seed is found the seeds are not allowed into the country.
New Zealand imports a lot of corn and maize seed from the US. It makes sense for exporters to test their seeds before they ship them, so MAF accredited BGS as one laboratory able to do testing for seed for sowing consignments destined for New Zealand.
2) What is the process for auditing laboratories? Why did BGS fail its MAF audit?
MAF audits all its accredited laboratories to ensure they meet New Zealand’s standards for imported seeds for sowing. Details of the audit process are available on the MAF web site.
As part of this process, MAF performed a site audit of Biogenetic Services Ltd in March 2004. This audit identified several significant deficiencies and MAF immediately suspended BGS’s accreditation.
A copy of MAF’s audit report into Biogenetic Services is available on the MAF web site.
3) Why exactly did MAF suspend BGS’s accreditation?
As part of a site audit of Biogenetic Services Ltd MAF discovered several deficiencies: Non-certified controls were used Results were inadequately interpreted Results were inadequately reported Documentation was not well managed.
4) Has the laboratory been re-accredited? When is this likely to happen?
No. The laboratory is now pursuing an aggressive timetable for certification to the international standard NZS/ISO/IEC 17025. MAF will formally re-audit the laboratory to ensure it meets these standards as part of considering reinstating BGS’s accreditation.
5) Why did MAF accredit BGS in the first place if it didn’t meet these standards?
BGS met the required MAF standard (refer to question 2 web site reference) when first accredited in 2002.
6) What other action did MAF take in response to its suspension of BGS’s accreditation?
As a precautionary approach, MAF decided to re-test any seeds certified by BGS as being GM free that were either en route to New Zealand from the United States, or already here.
7) How did MAF carry out this testing and what were the results?
MAF tested 15 out of 52 seed consignments that had been certified as GM free by BGS and imported into New Zealand. 13 tested negative for the presence of GM seeds. Two consignments reported the presence of very low levels of GM seed.
8) How did MAF choose the 15 samples that were re-tested, out of the total of 52? Why were only 15 samples taken, and will the rest be tested?
These 15 samples represented 80 percent of the volume certified by BGS that had been imported into New Zealand. While the seed already tested represents the vast bulk of seeds that may be planted out in New Zealand, MAF is now moving to test the remaining 20 percent to ensure they are GM free.
9) What were the GMOs that were discovered, and at what level?
In the larger consignment, the precise variety identified is LibertyLink T25, which is a variety of GM maize approved for human consumption in New Zealand. Testing indicates presence is at less than 0.05 percent. This translates to less than 1 seed in 2,000 or about 50 plants out of every 100,000.
In the smaller consignment, the exact variety of GM maize cannot be identified because it was detected at such low levels. MAF has been advised that this consignment has not been planted.
10) Does this represent a risk to human health or the environment?
No. The variety of GM maize detected in the large seed lot is widely grown in the United States and Canada. It is approved for human consumption in many countries, including New Zealand, although no one has ever applied to the Environmental Risk Management Authority to grow it here. Furthermore, it is present in low levels – about 50 plants out of every 100,000.
In the case of the smaller consignment, it was not planted in New Zealand and therefore poses no threat.
11) Has any of the maize seed been planted, and if so, where?
MAF has been advised that 1,317 bags of seed were imported, of which 351 bags were sold to grain and seed merchants. 966 remain in the importer’s warehouse and will be seized by MAF.
MAF is currently gathering information on the status and whereabouts of the 351 bags that were sold and whether any of the seed has been planted. If MAF finds that some seed has been planted, it will take the appropriate enforcement action.
12) Has any of the maize already been harvested?
MAF is currently gathering that information. It is possible that some crops may have already been harvested.
13) If the maize has been harvested, could any of it be in the human food chain?
MAF is currently gathering that information, although it appears unlikely at this stage. Maize is generally used for animal feed, either as green feed, silage or grain. While maize is sometimes used for some food products such as corn chips and corn flour, MAF understands from growers that this particular variety is not used for those purposes.
14) What is MAF going to do now?
MAF is working quickly to gather all the information it requires to determine the most appropriate response to these findings.
15) How do we test imports of seed?
The New Zealand GM testing regime is one of the strictest in the world.
MAF tests imported seed for sowing at the border and if there is any indication of GM content it is not allowed in. MAF tests every batch of corn seed for sowing (as well as maize seed) as it comes into the country. A consignment that has been tested offshore in a MAF-accredited laboratory, according to the method in our import protocol, will not be tested again unless there are genuine grounds that GM seeds are present. This means that seed from non-GM as well as GM producing countries are certified GM free before it is allowed into the country.
In 2002 the sample sizes for testing for inadvertent GM content were increased from 1,400 to 3,200 seeds. This means that the current testing process gives MAF a high level of confidence (95 percent) that any consignment with a level of GM presence one seed in a thousand will be detected.
16) Is a low level of GM presence inevitable?
This is difficult to predict.
With more and more GM crops being grown and traded around the world, there will be more opportunities for GM seeds to be present in seed supplies. On the other hand, the systems to separate GM and non-GM crops are likely to improve, driven both by commercial pressures and demands from governments for assurances. It is very likely that there will continue to be incidents like this one, where GM seeds are present unintentionally. But with appropriate actions and ongoing assurance systems, it should be possible to keep them isolated.
There is always a chance that low concentrations of GM seeds may not be detected, but most of the time they will be detected by the assurance systems that are in place.
17) What criteria does MAF use to select laboratories for accreditation for GM testing?
Selection of laboratories is an industry-led exercise, as MAF cost-recovers this process from the seed importers. After suggestion by industry of laboratories which they would be interesting in being accredited, MAF conducts a remote “paper” audit and assessment against the MAF interim standard PIT.GMO.AFGMOT.
The following is assessed: detection methods used for GMOs; the standard laboratory operating procedures used by the facility and any national or international quality systems adhered to; the structural aspects of the facility; the equipment available to carry out testing and the calibration of that equipment; the role of each staff position and staff competency; the experience of the facility in the area of GMO testing plant material; and the independence of the facility.
If the laboratory demonstrates a high level of competency in this initial part of the process, provisional accreditation may be awarded. Laboratories are fully accredited once a site visit and assessment confirms that facility’s operational competencies as previously assessed remotely in step 1. Only fully accredited labs can conduct routine regulatory GMO testing for MAF.
18) Why can’t the testing be done in New Zealand?
In principle, testing could be done in New Zealand, but no laboratories have been accredited yet for the purpose of enforcing the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996.
MAF has accredited three laboratories for testing – in Australia, France, and the USA – in order to enforce the Biosecurity Act 1993, which is focused on imported rather than domestic products. Importers have to pay the costs of accreditation and the most useful laboratories are offshore because most importers would prefer to test their seeds before shipping.
No importers have asked MAF to accredit any New Zealand laboratories for testing imported seed.
19) Why doesn’t New Zealand grow its own seeds?
New Zealand farmers use both locally produced and imported seeds. For pasture seeds such as ryegrasses and clovers, we are world-leaders – breeding and producing our own seeds and exporting about $60-70 million worth of them around the globe.
For maize and many vegetable crops, the best seeds come from large and expensive breeding programmes in the major agricultural producing countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Because of our size and climate, New Zealand cannot produce seeds that match the quality and value of those imported seeds.
There are other reasons as well: some crops lose their vigour after several generations so new varieties must be imported from time to time, and many of the best seeds are hybrids that do not breed true – the next generation is unlikely to have the qualities that make the variety desirable.
New Zealand farmers realise that to be internationally competitive, it is essential that they can participate in the seed breeding and multiplication industry, which must import seeds.
For further information about The New Zealand Food Safety Authority visit For further information about MAF protocols visit:

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