Brussels, 19 May 2003
A recent expert roundtable explored the scientific issues surrounding the 'co-existence' of genetically modified (GM), conventional and organic farming systems and how to avoid unintentional mixing.
The European Commission recently hosted a round-table of stakeholders from industry, civil society, consumer groups, as well as policy-makers to discuss measures to facilitate the sustainable co-existence of GM and non-GM crops.
"Managing co-existence between different agricultural crops has been an issue for farmers for centuries," noted Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "New genomics-based technologies offer increasing potential for improving crops in an environmentally friendly and consumer-oriented way. Europe should not overlook this opportunity."
Delegates at the roundtable examined the latest research results and discussed various approaches to prevent unintentional mixing. "What is needed now is an evaluation of the existing scientific evidence related to the admixture of GM and non-GM crops, and the technical and agronomic measures to avoid (it)," said Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler.
The large body of scientific evidence so far collected suggests that co-existence for some crops can be easily ensured, while others will require some modifications to farming techniques. This implies that a crop-specific approach needs to be pursued.
Maize and oilseed rape are among the candidates for large-scale cultivation in the EU and so scientists should focus on ensuring the co-existence of these two GM crops, Mr Fischler noted.
Freedom of choice
Although the EU (apart from Spain) does not currently produce GM crops commercially, the Commission believes that European consumers and farmers should have the freedom to choose what food they grow and eat.
"Co-existence is about ensuring that our farmers will have the chance to choose whether they want to produce conventionally, organically or using authorised GM crops," explained Mr Fischler.
This raises questions of how to manage the unintentional, or adventitious, mixing (known as admixing) of GM crops resulting from seed impurities, cross-pollination and other forms of gene transfer.
Mr Fischler stressed that co-existence is not about health or safety risks since the Union has a strict authorisation process in place that ensures only safe GM crops can be grown. It is about economic risks, he explains.
Admixing, when it occurs, can have severe economic consequences for farmers. Conventional and organic farmers have to sell their crops at cheaper prices if the adventitious presence of GM crops rises above the authorised threshold. The same holds for GM farmers.
"We must concentrate on the economic risks... and recognise that coexistence is inevitable and essential to ensuring freedom of choice for both farmers and consumers," added Mr Busquin.
Although Mr Fischler emphasised that it is the responsibility of individual Member States to develop their own policy frameworks, he said the Commission would be issuing a set of proposed guidelines on co-existence by the end of the summer.