Allegations that New Zealand's Labour government covered up the illegal release of a large batch of genetically modified sweetcorn are threatening to harm its chances of re-election next week.
The issue of genetically modified crops has dominated the election campaign, with the Green Party doubling its support in opinion polls to more than 10 per cent after announcing a hard-line stance of banning all but laboratory trials of such crops.
The Labour Party, led by the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, appeared on course to win an outright majority in the general election on 27 July. But its standing may have been seriously damaged by last week's allegations, which appeared in a book, Seeds of Distrust, by an investigative author, Nicky Hager. According to Mr Hager, the government – which prides itself on having the world's toughest regulations on GM food – learned in November 2000 that 5.6 tons of sweetcorn imported from the US had been accidentally contaminated with GM seeds.
Rather than destroying the plants, half of which were already in the ground, it allowed them to be grown, harvested and processed into food products, he claimed. The public was not informed of the affair, which breached the government's own moratorium on the release of GM crops pending the outcome of a royal commission.
The allegations caused an uproar, with a furious Ms Clark lambasting one television interviewer who ambushed her about the book before she even knew of its existence. The main opposition National Party claimed the government's actions proved that Labour could not be trusted.
Ministers rejected the claims, saying that while initial tests on the corn suggested it was contaminated, subsequent tests proved negative. It was for that reason that the corn was not destroyed. It was unclear, however, whether the public understood the minutiae of the government's account of events, and opinion polls this week will establish the extent of the fall-out. Trustworthiness and reliability are the central planks of Ms Clark's re-election platform.
Colin James of the New Zealand Herald said: "The importance of this affair is not genetically modified food; the importance is credibility and trust. Does the Prime Minister tell lies? The seeds of doubt have been planted in many people's minds, and that's quite damaging."
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