Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In his 2002 book Seeds of Distrust, the New Zealand reporter Nicky Hager alleged that genetically modified corn had been illegally released in New Zealand. He further alleged that Prime Minister Helen Clark and her Labour government knew about the release and covered it up. These revelations and the inability of the government to deal forthrightly with the issue diminished the popularity of the Labour government and tarnished its image.

Summary of Event

Agricultural products are sources of great national pride in New Zealand and are essential to the island nation’s economy. The “naturalness” of New Zealand produce is a primary aspect of the products’ appeal on world markets. To maintain that appeal, the country has extremely stringent regulations that prevent the introduction of genetically modified (GM) organisms for commercial purposes. Even the accidental introduction of GM plants would devastate the country’s carefully crafted image and potentially hurt the economy. [kw]Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand, Journalist Alleges Release of (July, 2002) "Corngate"[Corngate] Seeds of Distrust (Hager) Hager, Nicky Clark, Helen Genetic engineering "Corngate"[Corngate] Seeds of Distrust (Hager) Hager, Nicky Clark, Helen Genetic engineering [g]Australasia;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] [g]New Zealand;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] [c]Environmental issues;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] [c]Corruption;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] [c]Government;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] [c]International relations;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] [c]Publishing and journalism;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] [c]Science and technology;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] [c]Trade and commerce;July, 2002: Journalist Alleges Release of Genetically Modified Corn Seeds in New Zealand[03200] Campbell, John Fitzsimmons, Jeanette Hobbs, Marian

A Labour Party billboard featuring Prime Minister Helen Clark was defaced during the early days of the “Corngate” scandal.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In early July, 2002, New Zealand investigative reporter Nicky Hager’s book Seeds of Distrust: The Story of a GE Cover-up was released, only a few weeks before parliamentary elections. Hager alleges in the book that in September and October, 2000, 5.6 tons of sweet-corn seed was shipped to three New Zealand companies. These seeds were imported from the U.S.-based company Novartis, the second-largest seed producer in the world, and were certified to be free of all genetically engineered modifications. In total, 164 hectares (405 acres) of these corn seeds were planted in the regions of Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, and Marlborough, New Zealand.

Hager further alleged that in November, the New Zealand government was alerted that a 1.7-ton lot from this shipment, designated NC9114, went to Cedenco Foods, which retested the sweet-corn seed for GM contamination. Of the eight seed lines tested, one batch tested positive for the Nos terminator, a sequence not found in healthy plants but in the soil bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Agrobacterium is a plant pathogen that transfers some of its genes into plants and causes the plant tissue to form a crown gall that overproduces unusual amino acids called opines, which only Agrobacterium can metabolize. Plant geneticists have exploited this ability to make engineered strains of Agrobacterium that can introduce exotic genes into plant genomes. The presence of the Nos terminator in a plant seed genome is an indication that the plant is a GM plant. Novartis informed the ministry of agriculture and forestry (MAF). The MAF and the environmental risk management authority (ERMA) ordered that no more seeds from this consignment be planted.

Further tests were ordered from three different labs, but the results were contradictory, ranging from light contamination to none. In December, 2000, ERMA stated that the contradictory results did not provide definitive evidence that the sweet-corn seed consignment was contaminated with GM seeds, and if there was contamination, it was less than 0.04 percent. Unfortunately, the New Zealand Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act specified that no GM organisms could enter the country for commercial use. Prime Minister Helen Clark initially wanted the GM-contaminated plants pulled out and burned. However, after meetings with representatives from Novartis, Clark and her ministers changed their minds. The Novartis representatives convinced them that GM plants are ubiquitous and therefore completely GM-free seed shipments were neither practical nor possible. Thus, the Clark government considered a contamination level below 0.5 percent to be virtually GM-free. The seeds from the GM-contaminated consignment were allowed to be grown, harvested, and processed into food products. This also violated the government’s own moratorium on the release of GM crops, which was not set to expire until October, 2003. More important, all of this was done with little or no public disclosure.

With the publication of Hager’s book, Clark and her government ministers came under increased public pressure to answer Hager’s allegations. In a July 10, 2002, television interview with broadcaster John Campbell, Clark responded angrily when asked about the claims made in Hager’s book. She called Campbell “a little creep,” accused the television station of ambushing her, and appealed to the broadcasting standards authority to discipline Campbell for unethical journalism.

Upon hearing about an apparent government cover-up that allowed GM plants into the country, the Green Party, which up to this point was a close political ally of the Labour Party, criticized the Clark government for violating its own policies on GM plants. Again, Clark responded by attacking the Green Party coleader, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, saying that the “Green Party and its supporters have descended to the gutter.”

Even more troubling were the constant denials by government ministers that GM plants had entered the country. For example, in a July 11 interview with Campbell, the minister of the environment, Marian Hobbs, stated that there were no definitive tests that showed that the corn-seed shipment had been contaminated. Two days before, Clark also stated there was no evidence that the corn shipment was contaminated. The press named this scandal Corngate.

The 2002 election was not a disaster for the Labour Party, but it failed to gain a clear majority. The government released seven hundred pages of memos, e-mails, and other documentation, and in November, a select committee was formed to investigate the matter. After examining stacks of official documents and interviewing government officials, the committee could not reconcile the discrepancies between the oral reports given by Labour government officials and the written records provided to the committee. Furthermore, Novartis, now known as Syngenta, refused to share data from the tests it and others had run on the contaminated seed shipment.

The inquiry, however, did reveal that Clark did not leave the issue to her ministers, as she had strongly intimated, but was involved in the entire affair. Suppressed memos that were damaging to the Labour government’s version of events also came to light, as did several conflicts of interest. Even though the country was largely tired of Corngate by this time, the findings of the select committee did tend to show that the Labour government altered the truth.

On July 5, 2003, the Dominion Post, a Wellington-based newspaper, reported that a Japanese pizza company discovered genetically engineered material in one of its toppings that used New Zealand sweet corn. This indicated that GM corn was established in New Zealand farms, despite the government bans on GM plants.

In October, 2004, the select committee completed its investigation but was still unable to ascertain what had actually happened. The presence of GM-contaminated corn or a cover-up could be neither ruled out nor confirmed. Since then, GM plants have been detected in New Zealand fields and imports and food products.


The Corngate scandal opened a seemingly permanent chasm between the Labour and Green parties. Despite the center-left political orientation these two parties hold in common, Corngate revealed the irreconcilable differences between the two parties on the issue of GM plants.

Corngate also marred the otherwise excellent political record of Prime Minister Clark. Normally level-headed and reasonable, Clark often lost her composure when questioned about Corngate. In many ways, Corngate struck at the very substance of Clark’s government, since it looked like a murky compromise of principles in the face of pressure from industry, causing citizens who had once trusted her to become suspicious. Overall, Clark’s Labour government handled the scandal quite poorly but did not suffer greatly in the end.

More important, this scandal exposed the complicated and multifaceted issues that surround the planting and harvesting of GM plants. Because of the widespread use of GM plants, it is no longer possible to keep agriculture completely GM free. Establishing a total absence of GM seeds would require testing every available seed, which would leave none to plant or eat. Accepting a low level of GM contamination is probably the most realistic policy, even if it is not the most desirable. Communicating this to a public with a poor knowledge of such matters is difficult, but it is the only way to cultivate a reasoned discussion of this issue and eventually to construct a rational and workable GM policy. "Corngate"[Corngate] Seeds of Distrust (Hager) Hager, Nicky Clark, Helen Genetic engineering

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Espiner, Colin. “Corngate: Lend Me Your Ears.” The Press (Christchurch), July 20, 2002. A prominent New Zealand newspaper journalist gives a summary of the political fallout shortly after the release of Hager’s book and the attempts by Labour politicians to spin the story.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hager, Nicky. Seeds of Distrust: The Story of a GE Cover-up. Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potton, 2002. The book that started Corngate. A well-written exposé of the seed-contamination episode and government attempts to cover it up. Some of Hager’s assertions are conspiratorial and not supported by the evidence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lurquin, Paul. High Tech Harvest: Understanding Genetically Modified Food Plants. New York: Basic Books, 2004. A user-friendly introduction to the science behind GM crops. Lurquin effectively argues that construction of a sound and reasonable GM policy requires legislators to properly understand the science behind the plant itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Steward, Neal C. Genetically Modified Planet: Environmental Impacts of Genetically Engineered Plants. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. A nicely balanced, somewhat technical, but scientifically erudite examination of the potential benefits, concerns, and risks that surround the cultivation of GM crops. The author is quite fair to both sides.

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