Fifteen years ago, New Zealanders turned out in force to protest genetically engineered food but it has snuck onto our supermarket shelves regardless. Rebecca Reider reports.

The GE-free movement was one of the great activist successes in New Zealand history. In 1999, 20,000 people marched down Queen Street, calling for a ban on genetically engineered crops. The movement was broad-based. "Mothers were concerned GE crops would affect their babies and future generations," recalls Claire Bleakley, president of advocacy group GE Free New Zealand. In polls, over 70% of New Zealanders have supported keeping genetically modified organisms (GMOs) out of the country.

The protestors' side won. To this day, "we are GE-free in our food and environment, and it makes our export markets trust us," Bleakley says.

But while GE-free status confers respect on New Zealand products overseas, many New Zealanders remain unaware that genetically modified food imports have crept onto supermarket shelves here at home.

Under the Food Standards Code, all genetically modified (GM) food ingredients must be labelled as such. But no one currently enforces that. "Since 2003 there's been absolutely no monitoring or enforcement of GM food labelling in New Zealand," says Steffan Browning, Green Party MP and the party's spokesperson on GE.

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Back in 2003, in a spot audit, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority assessed 231 food manufacturers and 38 importers. It found that nearly 30% of the manufacturers, and 37% of the importers, lacked proper documentation of the GE status of their ingredients. No follow-up investigation has been done since.

New Zealand now imports large quantities of food ingredients from GMO-dominated countries. Corn, soy, canola and cottonseed are the main ones, accounting for 99% of GMO crops worldwide.

These crops tend to become filler ingredients in processed foods. Under current law, refined products such as canola oil and corn syrup do not have to be labelled with their GE status.

One major use of imported GE ingredients is in animal feed. New Zealand chicken farmers now report that it is difficult to source guaranteed GE-free feed at all.

Who decides?

Decisions about genetically modified foods eaten in New Zealand are rarely made on Kiwi soil. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), based in Canberra, assesses GE foods for both countries. FSANZ has approved more than 80 variations of the main genetically engineered food lines for human consumption. It has never rejected an application from a GE food producer.

New Zealand does not have an equal voice in this process. FSANZ's 12-member board contains nine Australians. In the final approval, New Zealand has one vote, while each Australian state gets one vote.

"FSANZ's method of assessing GM foods on behalf of Australia and New Zealand is recognised as international best practice," says Deborah Roche, deputy director-general at the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).

GE opponents argue, however, that FSANZ has strong ties to the biotech industry. Last year Australian scientist Peter Langridge, a long-time consultant to FSANZ on GMO food safety, acknowledged that his research centre receives A$3-5 million annually from DuPont, one of the world's largest GM seed companies.

Once FSANZ assesses a GMO food line, the application comes back to MPI in New Zealand for review. "MPI reviews all GM applications on a case-by-case basis and its opinions are science-based," Roche says.

However, on a legal level New Zealand's review process is a token gesture, in light of current trade agreements. Under the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Arrangement, New Zealand must accept any food which is allowed to be sold in Australia.

Is it safe?

Recent animal feeding studies have raised questions about the safety of GMO foods. In 2012, Italian scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini and co-authors published controversial findings comparing rats raised on GE and non-GE corn. The GE-fed rats developed increased tumours and liver and kidney disease. Seralini's paper was later withdrawn by the journal in which it was published - an unprecedented decision - after scientists claimed his study lacked the statistical rigour to support his conclusions; however anti-GMO activists cried foul play, claiming that industry scientists had influenced the decision. The findings have been republished in another scientific journal.

In 2013, Australian scientist Dr Judy Carman and her team found that pigs fed on genetically modified corn and soy showed an increase in severe stomach inflammation. It is not known whether such health effects could stem from genetic manipulation, or from agrichemicals. Many GM crops are designed to be herbicide-resistant, enabling farmers to spray whole fields with weed-killing toxins. Herbicide use has risen dramatically on these crops.

As a result, new herbicide-resistant weeds have evolved, leading to the use of increasingly toxic herbicides. Recently, FSANZ approved for consumption a GMO soybean strain designed to be sprayed with 2,4-D - one of the ingredients in Agent Orange.

Noting a lack of awareness of GE food in New Zealand, this year Steffan Browning has travelled the country, holding public meetings to elicit popular support for GE food labelling. His motivation is simple, Browning says: "New Zealanders deserve to know what they're feeding their children."

Want to eat a GE-free diet?

• Certified organic foods are always a safe bet. Organic producers do not use any GE ingredients.

• Avoid non-organic animal products, particularly eggs, chicken and pork, as the animals may have been raised on GE feed.

• Avoid processed foods that include any of the following ingredients: corn, soy, canola, cottonseed. These may be from GE sources. The majority of processed foods contain one of these ingredients, which range from corn syrup to soy lecithin.

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