MAF, Minister Face GM Outcry


by Mary-Jane Angus

Furious farmers caught up in the GM corn import saga say they have been left out of pocket and out in the cold as a result of bungled biosecurity.

Many who planted the genetically modified corn cleared by MAF Quarantine Services, only to later have it destroyed, are still waiting for compensation four months after the gaffe.

A Rural News investigation reveals a sordid saga of buck-passing with farmers left to carry the cost of a mistake they played no part in.

Hawke’s Bay corn grower Andrew Field who planted and subsequently had to destroy 20.5ha of GM corn says “ever since the outbreak, the handling of the issue has been diabolical”.

“It’s just been a debacle from whoa to go and those who have been left out on a limb, and out of pocket, have been the growers,” he says.

Last December MAF announced GM sweetcorn seed from US company Syngenta was incorrectly cleared by MAF’s Quarantine Service in October 2006.

Seed was planted on 18 farms in Gisborne, Wairoa and Hawke’s Bay over 258ha. These crops were subsequently destroyed and 10 of the 18 affected properties have replanted 191ha of sweetcorn.

Questions remain about who should take responsibility for the mistake and ensure full compensation is paid to farmers.

But Field believes that because the delays have not been publicised, the authorities are happy to ignore the issue.

“They think we will go quietly and just disappear, but I’m certainly not happy about it, and not keen to lay down and go away. Why should I?”

Field is still seeking an additional $800/ha to cover losses arising
from the incident because pasture resowing was delayed. So far he has received $500/ha, which he believes was paid by Syngenta.

“This payment was deemed to cover all replanting costs although nothing was ever received in writing to confirm this,” he says.

Growers have requested $1000/ha to cover replanting and seed costs.

McCain Foods provided the seed for the second crop, which Field
estimates cost $400/ha, and said it would help farmers recover costs from Syngenta. He says despite those assurances from the company no help has been forthcoming.

National Party associate agriculture spokesman Nathan Guy told Rural News there is a grey area in the Biosecurity Act surrounding whether compensation can be sought and paid.

“Instead of MAF fronting up and acknowledging it’s been their mistake and paying farmers, they have sat back and appear to be passing the buck to Syngenta,” he says.

“They have acknowledged they don’t want to see farmers disadvantaged, and have been considering ex gratia payments.

“In my mind, they should have fronted up and made sure farmers weren’t out of pocket, and then gone to Syngenta to seek repayments from the seed company.”

A stakeholder update issued by MAF on December 22 – obtained by Rural News – says compensation is not payable by MAF under the Biosecurity Act for losses due to the presence of GMOs, although the agency is keen to see that growers are not disadvantaged as a result of this occurence.

It says Syngenta confirmed it would meet its obligations to growers. Further, MAF says it would meet the cost of crop destruction and follow-up surveillance.

Growers seeking payment for the labour costs, chemical usage and other expenses directly associated with the destruction were told to submit detailed invoices to AgriQuality.

Guy has questioned Biosecurity Minister Jim Anderton in Parliament on the matter.

In response to whether compensation was offered, Anderton says losses would result from the presence of GM material in the final crop, rather than from any actions that MAF might take to destroy such a crop.

“Biosecurity Act funding might not therefore be available,” he says.

However, Anderton says Biosecurity NZ has stated this would not prevent the Government from providing an ex gratia payment.

“Indeed I have stated that I do not want farmers to go out of pocket,” he says. “Any ex gratia payments would need to be authorised by myself or the Cabinet.”

Guy says Anderton needs to commit to whether any ex gratia payments will be made or not.

“He has had several months to do this, and it seems he has been sitting on his hands and passing the buck to the American supplier Syngenta.

“Farmers are a couple of months behind in their growth periods of winter crops as a result of this breech, and it will have a significant effect on their farmgate returns this season.”

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fax: 09 3070122

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Clare Swinney

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