The Government is expected to confirm today that a crop of East Coast maize was GM-contaminated.

If so, what does this mean? It means that the stricter seed import requirements now in place for maize should have been there at least two years ago.

It does not mean New Zealand has lost the option to be a GM-free food producer. Nor does it mean GM contamination must be accepted as routine.

And it does not mean that we need contamination “thresholds”.

Contaminated seed imports are a biosecurity issue. Seed imports were identified early as a significant risk and, in the absence of strong border controls, accidental contamination was likely to occur sooner or later.

At the national level, the “GM-Free New Zealand” food brand is largely unaffected by a contamination incident if the standard is no contamination, there is meaningful enforcement and there is a serious effort to clean up once any contamination is detected.

When individual food producers label their goods GM-free, that is a claim about the purity of a particular product. These claims can be individually tested and some major food companies do, in fact, test every batch of ingredients for GM content.

Consumer resistance to GM content is so strong in Europe and parts of Asia that even companies which sell GM seeds and also manufacture food, will produce GM-free lines. For example, Novartis, a company at the forefront of GM seed development, makes Gerber babyfood that is advertised as GM-free.

So if major food companies do not accept that GM contamination is routine, and many actively source product to avoid this, a nation that positions itself as a premium food producer would surely not accept contamination as routine.

Yet that is what some GM agriculture proponents are suggesting.

The favoured reform is “thresholds” – the setting of allowed contamination limits. By implication this is an argument for contamination thresholds on food as well as seeds. You cannot have legal seeds and an illegal crop.

Making contamination legal would require a law change. This was the policy switch considered nearly two years ago when it was suspected that Gisborne sweetcorn was contaminated.

However, shortly after this time, the Government ruled out the idea of setting thresholds. Instead, it developed new regulations based on zero tolerance that require testing every seed shipment originating from countries judged to be higher risk.

It announced these new requirements for maize just days before the first indications of maize contamination were reported in early August.

Essentially, the requirements apply only to those countries where there is commercial production of GM crops. Just four countries – the United States, Canada, Argentina and China – account for over 98 per cent of all commercial production, so the high-risk pathways are not difficult to pick.

Crop and Food Research (a crown research institute developing genetically modified organisms) nonetheless believes that the present policy of zero tolerance for seed imports should be dropped.

It argues that because a number of other countries have labelling regulations providing thresholds for GM content, New Zealand can afford to lift its zero-tolerance policy.

But thresholds are not necessary in New Zealand to cope with any existing contamination or seed imports.

Contamination remains important to avoid because thresholds simply set regulatory standards. They do not ensure market acceptance.

As US corn growers discovered over European Union corn imports, it is market acceptance for all growers of like crops that is at stake. Non-GM exports of corn were rejected just the same as those that were actually GM when the US lost 95 per cent of its shipments to this market.

Thresholds would, however, make it much easier to gain approval for the commercial release of GM crops.

Contamination of non-GM crops is a major issue and originally it had been thought that containment measures, such as buffer zones, could cope with this.

But, as study after international study casts doubt on containment as a solution, even the proponents of GM agriculture no longer argue its case.

Thus the call for thresholds becomes a call to shift the goalposts before a decision on whether to release GM crops has been made.

GMO release for agriculture is a fundamental commercial call, quite separate from any scientific evaluation, and should be determined as a matter of national policy.

Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton last month told South Canterbury Federated Farmers the nature of the challenge as he saw it: “If you want to use this method, then you have to convince the 80 per cent of New Zealanders who are willing to consider GM but who have concerns about issues raised, and, in the absence of good answers about those questions, see no reason to have GM here.”

This is the frontier in the GM debate – not the call to make contamination legal.

By Simon Terry—published in the NZ Herald.