Adventitious presence of GMOs among seeds: Commissioner Wallström's remarks to Parliament

October 28, 2002

Strasbourg, 25 October 2002

Verbatim report of proceedings on 24 October 2002

Wallström, Commission. - Mr President, the questions are very important in the context of the current debate on GMOs in Europe. We still do not have a clear-cut reply to some of Mr Graefe zu Baringdorf's questions. Please accept that my answers are to some extent preliminary ones, which will require further scrutiny and reflection, both within the Commission and in our ongoing discussions with the Member States and the different stakeholders.

I wish to begin with a short description of the problem we are faced with when dealing with the adventitious presence of GM seeds in conventional products. This is also important for everyone who has followed this debate.

On a global scale, GMO cultivation has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2001, 5.5 million farmers in 13 countries grew an estimated 52.6 million acres with GM crops. Between 2000 and 2001, the number of acres planted to GM crops increased by almost 20%. For some crops, the increase was particularly large. In the US, GM corn increased from 4.4% of all planted acres in 1996 to 32% in 2002. GM soya beans increased from 7.4% in 1996 to 74% in 2002.

To date, the cultivation of GMOs has been geographically concentrated, with 99% of all GM crops produced by four nations: the United States of America, Argentina, Canada and China. However, GM cultivation is likely to spread to other nations in the next few years. So far Europe has played a very marginal role, with fewer than 20 000 acres of GM crops, mainly in Spain and France. That is some 0.03% of the worldwide area.

Europe has large volumes of trade with major GM producers - although trade in GM products has mainly concerned products for animal feed. Imports of GM products for human consumption, like maize, have largely ceased, because of the inability of exporters to ensure the identity of all individual GMOs in shipments.

The last few years have shown that the adventitious presence of traces of GMOs in conventional products has become inevitable. Cross-pollination between plants is a natural phenomenon - that also happens between other seeds. We simply cannot completely control its mechanisms, which include factors such as wind and insect movements. It is therefore largely unavoidable that small traces of GMOs will be transferred to conventional crops and their harvested products.

Storage and transportation practices may also make it difficult or extremely costly to ensure total segregation. Consequently, conventional seed lots will contain traces of GM seeds.

Setting tolerance thresholds for impurities for GM seeds in this particular case is the only way to address the problem. Closing our market completely is not a viable option. Against this background, the Commission is currently preparing a proposal for a Commission directive amending the annexes to the seed directives. This proposal includes additional conditions and requirements concerning the adventitious presence of GM seeds in lots of non-GM seeds.

The Committee on Agriculture has been informed twice about the status of this proposal. Commissioner Byrne has written to inform Mrs Jackson that the text will be formally submitted to the European Parliament, which will then have the opportunity to scrutinise it.

Article 21(2) of Directive 18/2001/EC provides for the possibility of establishing thresholds below which traces of authorised GMOs are exempted from labelling requirements. Hence, conventional products containing adventitious traces of such GM seeds below this threshold would not have to be labelled.

Let me now answer some of the questions raised by Mr Graefe zu Baringdorf. On the competent body to set thresholds, the Regulatory Committee, provided for in Directive 18/2001/EC , is competent for decisions pertaining to thresholds under Article 21(2) of the directive, with regard to exemption from labelling requirements. However, it is not competent for decisions made under the sector-specific seeds directives, where thresholds relate specifically to marketing criteria for seeds. The Standing Committee on Seeds rightly has the necessary competence in this case. Consistency between the different pieces of legislation has to be maintained.

On the risks that a significant percentage of GM seeds may be released out of control into the environment, I would first say that it is paramount that any threshold should take account of the protection of human health and, importantly, in the case of seeds, the environment. You will be aware that this includes a comprehensive free-market assessment of the potential risks.

Secondly, thresholds must be workable and enforceable. The proposed thresholds arise directly from the opinion of the Scientific Committee on Plants and are scientifically founded with reference to the characteristics of the crop species.

Thirdly, on the registration of GMO cultivation, under the provisions of Article 31(3)(b), Member States are required to establish registers for recording the location of GM fields grown for commercial purposes. As detailed in the article, the objective of this is to allow the possible effects of these GMOs on the environment to be monitored.

As for the scope of Directive 18/2001/EC , this clearly relates to cultivation of a GM seed product itself and not a conventional seed product containing traces of GM seeds.

The GM seed product itself has to be labelled as such and also traced, so that growers will know what they are sowing. It will therefore be possible for Member States to record the locations of the resultant crops.

However, the threshold values, which are based on robust scientific assessment, should aim at ensuring that the cultivation of conventional seeds basically maintains the characteristics of non-GM cultivation.

Coexistence is a key issue in the Commission communication on Life Sciences and Biotechnology - a Strategy for the Future. The Commission has commissioned a number of studies on this issue. The main aim is to assess the consequences arising from an increase in the cultivation of GM crops in the European Union in the context of coexistence. So far, we only have preliminary data based on hypothetical scenarios, and further experimental data is required to provide a more accurate picture.

The Commission is actively pursuing such work before considering possible options to ensure the viability of conventional and organic farming and their sustainable coexistence with GM crops.

As a further step in this process, the Commission has commenced discussions in partnership with Member States, farmers and other private operators to find the most appropriate solutions. It is important to say that the issue of coexistence is not one of risk per se. It does, however, highlight a possible need to establish correct agricultural management systems and practices for the different crop types to ensure their coexistence and consumer choice.

This is my initial reply to your questions and I will be happy to make further comments at the end of the debate.

Wallström, Commission. - Mr President, this is a recurring institutional debate. Should the codecision procedure or comitology be used? The seeds directives provide for purity criteria in the annexes and they can be adapted to scientific and technical knowledge by the comitology procedure provided for under the seeds directive. It is thus possible to set thresholds for GM presence in non-GM varieties through a comitology procedure.

The 1% food labelling threshold provided for in a Council regulation has been set by the comitology procedure provided for under the foodstuff labelling legislation. Article 21(2) of Directive 2001/18/EC also states that labelling thresholds may be set in the comitology procedure provided for under the directive. Timing and the possibility of making it a practical procedure are also factors...

Wallström, Commission. - Mr President and Mr Purvis, I know one thing and that is that the GMO issue will give me grey hairs. We know from Eurobarometer opinion polls that most people are worried about GMOs. At the same time, they say that they do not know enough about them. Perhaps there is a connection.

I would like to say to Mrs Breyer that we have looked at those concerns very carefully to ensure that we establish clear legislation - a clear framework - for handling both the potential benefits and the risks of GMOs. That is why we have revised Directive 18/2001/EC to include better risk assessment and better information, so that consumers can make an informed choice. That is why we have proposed further legislation on traceability and labelling. However, it would not be honest to say that if we continue to import seeds, for example, we can guarantee total purity and no adventitious presence of GMOs.

We know that everything in nature escapes - through cross-pollination for example - so closing borders is not a viable solution. We have to be pragmatic and establish levels and thresholds to deal with natural phenomena. We have to look at the situation as it actually is and at the products we import.

This leads me to Mr Trakatellis' question about traceability. The proposals on traceability and labelling, as well as on food and feed, are not based entirely on the detectability of GMOs. Even if they cannot be detected, consumers have the right to know. The current Novel Foods Regulation will be replaced by these proposals and the scope will be broadened to give consumers a choice, even if the GMOs are not detectable. Consumers have the right to be informed of the presence of GMOs in the products they buy, even if the GMOs are not detectable.

I shall comment on two further issues that have been raised. Firstly, on labelling thresholds, the Commission can only take account of existing legislation and, for the time being, a 1% threshold is in force for foodstuffs. This 1% threshold is provided for by the Council regulation, as amended by Commission Regulation (EC) No 49/2000 . Above that 1% threshold, an indication of the presence of a genetic modification in a food is compulsory. As the recital of the regulation states, the 1% value best serves the purpose of establishing a tolerance level which simultaneously remains low and takes into account the necessary feasibility along the production chain. All these factors along the production chain are involved.

The seeds thresholds are based on this 1% threshold. You have to count backwards in order to reach this 1% threshold..24- 0-2002 45 A recital of the draft Commission directive on seeds provides that, should the food threshold change, the thresholds for seeds would need to be reconsidered accordingly.

On the coexistence issue, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies is carrying out a study entitled 'Scenarios for Coexistence of Genetically Modified, Conventional and Organic Crops in European Agriculture', commissioned by the Agriculture Directorate-General and coordinated by the Joint Research Centre. The main aim of the study is to assess the consequences arising from an increase in the cultivation of GM crops in the European Union in the context of coexistence.

The study aimed to identify the source and estimated levels of adventitious presence of GM crops in non-GM crops at farm level, identify and assess changes in farming practices that could reduce adventitious presence below policy relevant thresholds and estimate the costs of relevant changes in farming practices, monitoring systems and potential insurance systems. The study confirms that cross-pollination and coexistence are issues that need to be considered in relation to agricultural production in general.

The results of the study need to be interpreted with caution. Only three crops were analysed: oilseed rape for seed production, maize for feed use and potatoes for human consumption. The results are derived from models and have not been validated by real field data. Therefore this study provided preliminary conclusions but the hypothetical results need to be confirmed and further research will be done.

The Commission is discussing this and coordinating with the various directorate-generals. This debate will certainly continue.

This is a very complex and sensitive issue, legally, technically and politically. As I said earlier, we readily admit that we do not have all the answers. However, what we can do - as we have done with other technologies - is to put in place a legal framework to deal with the potential benefits as well as the risks. That is what we have tried to do with the revised Directive 18/2001/EC , traceability and labelling. Consequently it will, for example, affect thresholds when it comes to seed regulation.

I thank you for this debate and I am sure we shall continue it at a later date.

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