Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel: Co-existence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming, Conference on co-existence

April 6, 2006

Vienna, 5 April 2006

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin by echoing the welcome message which you have already heard from Dirk and Josef. I’m very grateful to the Austrian presidency of the European Union for teaming up with the Commission to produce this conference. And of course I’m very glad to see so many people here. I’m sure we will all have food for thought over the next two days.

One of the greatest anxieties which politicians have to face is the fear of being boring – in particular, of having to speak at length on a dull technical subject which no one really cares about. Thankfully, I don’t need to worry about dull subject matter today! Genetic modification gets people’s attention: when it appears in public debate, they listen.

And of course we can see why. Genetic modification is one of the more controversial technologies of our time. In connection with agriculture, it has opponents who see it as an engine for the destruction of nature, or for the production of “Frankenstein foods”. At the same time, it has friends who see it as a valuable innovation which can actually be the friend and ally of nature while also bringing economic advantages. Some even see it as a new weapon against starvation in areas of the world with dwindling land and water resources and strong population growth.

Whatever our personal views may be, the use of GM technology is spreading, as is the use of GM crops. They were cultivated on 90 million hectares worldwide last year, and that figure seems likely to increase. It is already completely legal to grow certain GM crops within the European Union, and the list of permitted crops will almost certainly become longer in the years ahead. GM farming has arrived, and we must have the administrative tools to handle all aspects of it.

This conference is about an area of GMO policy in which we must further develop those tools: the co-existence of GM crops with their conventional and organic cousins.

Needless to say, in the public mind the issue of co-existence is closely linked to a number of broader questions about GMOs. For this reason, it’s very important to understand clearly how our policy choices about co-existence fit in to the structure of the European Union’s overall GMO policy.

Within the logic of that structure, co-existence policy is not about the safety of people, animals or the environment. It is not a tool for managing risks to health or to the environment.

In the EU, the question of how to cultivate a given GM crop alongside non-GM crops arises only if that crop has already been cleared as harmless by the EU’s assessment system. That system is, arguably, the strictest in the world. It draws on the knowledge and opinion of a large number of bodies, within Member States and at EU level.

It is also a system with strong democratic credentials. I acknowledge that it has been criticised in some quarters, but we must remember that it was set up with full transparency by EU Member States and the European Parliament acting together.

So, if co-existence policy is not about safety, what is it about? Put simply, it’s about choice.

Once a GM crop has been authorised for cultivation in the EU, in principle farmers have the right to grow it if they wish, and consumers have the right to buy the produce that comes from it. At the same time, farmers also hold the right to cultivate non-GM crops, and many consumers will continue to demand non-GM food.

everyone should be free to choose. But that choice is eroded if GM and non-GM crops are unintentionally mixed up; and in such cases, there may be an economic impact on one or more of the parties involved.

The Commission made an initial contribution to co-existence policy in the form of guidelines to help Member States develop national approaches. When we issued the guidelines in 2003, we also committed ourselves to reporting on progress in due course. We duly presented our report last month.

This report is probably familiar to many or most of you, but I would like to recall some of its main points now.

The report notes that our experience of the commercial cultivation of GM crops in the EU is limited to maize – mainly in Spain.

It highlights that we are also at an early stage of experience in terms of national co-existence legislation. At present, there are co-existence rules on the statute book in just five Member States: Germany, Denmark, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Austria. Other Member States either are still at the drafting stage or have recently submitted drafts to the Commission.

I would like to thank Member State authorities for giving their time and energy to detailed discussions with the Commission about their legislative proposals. There has certainly been warm debate on some points; but in many cases we have managed to reach agreement, and at the very least, some important technical issues have been clarified.

The legal frameworks which we have seen have points in common and points of difference.

The main point in common relates to the responsibility of ensuring that GM and non-GM crops are properly segregated. This onus is generally placed on growers of GM crops.

However, most of the frameworks do not yet contain detailed practical field measures to achieve this segregation. This is partly because technical knowledge still has some catching-up to do, especially for crops other than maize.

A significant difference between the various frameworks relates to the level of segregation to be achieved between GM and non-GM crops.

Some Member States have aimed to segregate only to the extent necessary to ensure that non-GM food and feed do not have a GMO content of 0.9% or more - the level at which a product must be labelled as GM under EU rules. This is in line with the Commission’s guidelines on co-existence. Others have aimed to be stricter; still others have not been specific.

Further differences relate to the issue of civil liability in cases where a farmer loses money because of unwanted GMO admixture to his or her crops.

Some Member States have not proposed specific provisions, and therefore the general civil liability codes apply. Others have decided that the challenge of co-existence merits special laws and/or compensation schemes.

I hope I have summarised clearly some of the most significant points in the Commission’s co-existence report, which is of course in the public domain. Now I would like to focus on our current thinking.

Let me sum up our position clearly: We do not think it would be helpful to propose binding EU-wide rules on co-existence at present, either in terms of segregation methods or in terms of liability.

With regard to segregation methods, technical experience has not advanced far enough. It is conceivable that, at some stage, we would know enough to suggest some basic common rules. But that stage is not yet at hand. The Commission argued in its guidelines for co-existence that the right approach to segregation in a given area has to take account of details of geography, climate and farming systems that vary hugely across the EU. We stand by that argument. My staff in Brussels is very bright, but even they cannot formulate good policy without solid information.

These points are closely linked to the issue of civil liability. Let’s be clear: if we put in place the right co-existence rules, and apply them properly, economic damage will be the exception. So we have all the more reason to do our technical homework well.

Nevertheless, in cases where damage does occur, of course Member States need efficient and straightforward rules for compensation. But we have to take great care in this area. Civil liability law falls completely outside the powers of the European Community: it is entirely up to individual Member States, who have developed very different systems – over hundreds of years, in some cases.

If we hurried into applying a new, harmonised approach to liability in the case of co-existence problems, the legal implications would be enormous. We could be accused of rushing in where angels fear to tread.

Overall, then: at this stage, harmonisation of whatever kind would probably be a blunt instrument. For the time being, only Member States can do the detailed and delicate work required to make co-existence a reality.

On the other hand, co-existence clearly is subject to a number of rules which already apply at EU level – not only in the area of GMO authorisation and labelling, but also with regard to the internal market.

We have to keep this point firmly in view in the debate about GMO-free regions, for example. Yes, we might have to consider excluding an individual GM product from a given area if, for scientific reasons, it genuinely could not co-exist with non-GM crops in that area. But no, we cannot simply ban all GM crops from an entire region because of hostility to GM products per se.

Where a product has been shown not to be harmful, in principle the rules of the free internal EU market apply. So, also, do WTO rules, as we have seen. The debate on co-existence must be about ensuring co-existence, not preventing it.

Ladies and gentlemen, even if the Commission prefers to take a “hands-off” approach in legal terms for the time being, we certainly want to give Member States practical support in their efforts to get co-existence systems off the ground.

This will mean:

  • giving funding to research activities that fill large gaps in our knowledge on co-existence and getting the best out of the research that is already in progress;
  • working with Member States and other parties to identify best practice for technical segregation measures; and
  • assessing more fully the impact on co-existence from different civil liability systems.
We will give a progress report to the Council and the European Parliament in 2008.

In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, we want to hear more from you. Today I have set out my views in principle on certain issues, but the co-existence debate will continue to move and develop as our knowledge increases. I look forward to full and detailed contributions from you over the next two days and beyond.

Thank you for listening, and I wish you a stimulating conference.

Item source: SPEECH/06/223 Date: 05/04/2006

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