Can GMOs be grown alongside other crops?

September 15, 2003

Brussels, 12 Sep 2003

The Agriculture Committee held a public hearing on Thursday titled "Co-existence between genetically modified crops and conventional and organic crops". The hearing was part of the ongoing debate on the difficulties of separating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from conventional organisms in food and animal feed. A new EU directive (June 2003) introduces a tolerance level of 0.9% of accidental GMOs in conventional organisms. Should this threshold be exceeded, the producer will have to indicate it on the product label.

One of the main concerns among farmers is the increasing cultivation of GMOs and the potential presence of minute traces of GMOs in conventional seeds. It is practically impossible today to achieve 100% non-genetically modified products. The European Commission has therefore recently drafted guidelines suggesting a tolerance level for the adventitious presence of GMOs in seeds: between 0.3% and 0.7%, depending on the type of seed. Meanwhile the European Parliament is currently preparing an own-initiative report on the subject and its rapporteur, Friedrich-Wilhelm GRAEFE zu BARINGDORF (Greens/EFA, D) - an organic farmer himself - opened the debate by setting forth the main questions: Is co-existence possible in agriculture? What does it mean in practice? How can the public be properly informed? What kind of costs will it entail and who should bear these costs?"The Commission guidelines make it clear that it is up to the Member States to decide the threshold for co-existence", he added. "But this procedure will get more difficult with enlargement, as 25 different national systems will have to be harmonised. My report will try to address problems such as civil liability, the sharing of costs and the practical implementation of co-existence", said Mr Graefe zu Baringdorf. However, several experts agreed with the Commission that it should be the responsibility of the Member States to fix the threshold, because the risk of contamination varies enormously depending on many factors (climatic conditions, type of crops, machinery) and appropriate measures have to be taken at local level.

Jeremy SWEET (National Institute of Agriculture Botany, UK) said the Member States must manage the situation themselves, working with individual farmers and cooperatives. "We need local tools to monitor and follow up the effects of GMOs. We cannot give Europe-wide recommendations", added Antoine MESSEAN (INRA, France).

Adventitious presence of GMOs

Mr Sweet argued that "certain thresholds should be allowed" for GMOs, at different levels depending on the type of seed. "I have the feeling that 0.3% could be valid for some species", he said, but others (like maize) have a higher risk of contamination due to cross-pollination and it would be hard to keep a 0.9% threshold. In his opinion, the problem was that the most common crops cultivated in Europe are those at highest risk of cross-pollination. "We need a lot more data on how pollen is distributed and how it moves and contaminates fields. (…) GMOs can persist in one field from one year to another, even from one decade to another. Just one seed per square meter could lead to 100% contamination", he concluded.

The experience of Rikke BAGGER JØRGENSEN (Risø National Laboratory, Denmark) suggested that "the current knowledge of certain crops is too limited at the moment to suggest threshold measures". "Co-existence with a threshold of 0.9% is technically possible, although with certain limits. However, it would be much simpler to separate GMOs and non-genetically modified seeds in different regions. Such reorganisation will eliminate the risk of contamination much more" said Olivier PAGEARD (Coopérative agricole de céréales, France). From an economic point of view, he contended, "GMOs will have to give us an extra profit margin to make it worthwhile if we have to cover the extra cost of co-existence".

Franz RAAB (Association of phyto-cultivators and seed traders, Austria) described Austrian legislation on GMOs and pointed that "with the traditional distances between crops and conventional rules we will not be able to meet all the requirements of co-existence".

Finally, the experts were reluctant to give a clear answer to Mr Graefe's question about shared costs and civil liability. "The costs caused by the change of agricultural practices to ensure better co-existence are difficult to measure", said Mr Messean. Only Ms Jørgensen was willing to say that Danish experience showed "the extra cost would vary from 0% to 21%. The full responsibility for co-existence problems lies with the GMO farmer. If the recommendations for isolation distances, rotation periods, volunteer control etc. are not followed, the GMO farmer will have to pay damages to his non-GMO neighbours", she concluded.

11.09.2003 Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development - Public Hearing

Press enquiries:Maria Andrés Marín - tel. (32-2) 28 44299e-mail:

European Parliament News Report 0912

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