Commissioner Nielson's remarks on co-existence of GM crops with traditional crops to Parliament

December 19, 2003

Strasbourg, 18 December 2003

Verbatim report of proceedings on 17 December 2003, Part 2

Nielson, Commission. Mr President, I would like to start by apologising as I see from the timetable that I have been allocated two and a half minutes, but in fact I have a prepared statement which is somewhat more thorough. Not having known this in advance, I feel obliged to go for substance rather than time management.

Firstly I would like to thank the rapporteur, Mr Graefe zu Baringdorf, and the Members of Parliament who have contributed to this own-initiative report. The Commission welcomes this report as a timely contribution to the discussion on coexistence. I fully share the opinion that coexistence is a highly important issue that needs to be addressed in a transparent and open-minded way.

With the new GMO authorisation procedure and the legislation on traceability and labelling, the European Union has created a comprehensive regulatory framework that should clear the way for the introduction of GMOs in agriculture. By establishing the conditions for coexistence we must ensure that farmers who want to use conventional and organic farming methods should be able to do so.

The report comes at a time when several Member States are in the process of preparing national and regional approaches to coexistence. It also comes at a time when the Commission is seeking to further clarify how it can best engage with the Member States in supporting this process, following the publication of the Commission recommendation on guidelines for coexistence last July.

While the Commission welcomes the own-initiative report as a valuable overall contribution to the discussion in terms of the individual statements and recommendations put forward, there are only a few we can wholeheartedly endorse. I shall comment briefly on some of them.

Concerning thresholds for seeds, we would agree that information on the presence of GMOs in seeds is necessary for the proper implementation of the GMO legislation, especially regarding labelling and traceability. However, the thresholds apply only to adventitious traces of authorised GMOs that have undergone extensive environmental and health-risk assessment. They are not meant to be a risk management tool.

We also recognise the importance and urgency of defining thresholds for the adventitious presence of GMOs in seed lots of non-GM varieties and we are currently working on a proposal. In doing so, we are basing ourselves on sound scientific advice building on the preparatory work that has been carried out over the last two years.

I am pleased to see that the report has replaced a previous draft text recommending a 0.1% threshold for seeds by a new text that takes account of scientific assessments regarding practical applicability. The Commission has always been of the opinion that thresholds should be feasible and practicable in a GMO environment. It has always insisted on the fact that sound scientific advice was needed in order to set thresholds.

Regarding the request for uniform and binding rules for coexistence at Community level, we are not convinced that this would be a feasible solution. Given the diversity that characterises European agriculture, we believe that it would be impossible to establish uniform rules that can be applied across the board. A 'one size fits all' approach is not appropriate.

Scientists have repeatedly supported the subsidiarity-based approach, also at the preliminary hearing on coexistence organised in September 2003. Member States also increasingly see this as the appropriate way forward. Moreover, with the insertion of an Article on coexistence into Directive 2001/18/EC at the request of the European Parliament, Member States now have the possibility to adopt measures for coexistence. With this clause for national coexistence measures in place and the Commission guidelines available, we believe that the framework for national solutions to coexistence is sufficiently elaborated. Coexistence cannot be a reason to further delay the authorisation of new GMOs.

I do not share the opinion expressed in the report that Member States should be obliged to put in place legislation to ensure coexistence. On the contrary, we should leave it up to them to explore the use of different policy instruments, including voluntary agreements and soft-law approaches and to choose the combination of instruments and depth of regulation that best suits them under their specific conditions.

On the question of who should be responsible for implementing the necessary measures we are in complete agreement. In fact, the Commission guidelines state that the farmers who introduce a new production type should bear this responsibility.

This principle is mutual, although at the beginning it will mainly concern farmers who want to grow GMOs.

Regarding liability, I have difficulty understanding why Community-wide civil liability rules should be necessary. The question of liability cannot be dealt with in isolation. Liability is conditioned by the overall approach to coexistence taken by the Member State. It should therefore be addressed as an integral part of the package of national coexistence measures.

A general levy on GM seeds and feed, to cover administrative expenditures, as well as the testing and monitoring costs associated with GMO legislation, would not be compatible with the principle of the common market. As a general principle, the marketing of products that are authorised under Community legislation and found safe for human health and the environment, should not be restricted or impeded by the Member States. Of course taxation is here to stay - we tax many things in terms of economic activity as a whole, and so, logically, I would say that this discussion is not so strange.

The report asks the Commission to establish legally-binding definitions of the terms 'adventitious' and 'technically unavoidable'. Our legislation is clear on this: operators must be in a position to show that they have tried to avoid the presence of GMOs.

Concerning the issue of cross-border effects, the Commission could agree that this needs to be further examined. We will reflect on how this can be done and what contribution the Commission can make. We can also establish whether drawing up a public register of national strategies and best practices with cross-border impacts would be useful.

As regards GMO-free zones, we have a different view. We strongly feel that a blanket ban of all types of GMOs from a region is not possible, unless it is on a voluntary basis. The regional restriction of certain types of GMOs needs to be scientifically justified on a crop-by-crop basis and should only be a last resort if farm-level management measures are insufficient. The Commission agrees that more research is needed on coexistence. It therefore supports scientific studies conducted by the joint research centre and under the sixth framework programme for Community research. These studies will cover cost analysis, good farming practices for coexistence and liability issues. However, a comprehensive report covering all economic aspects of coexistence under the different cost conditions in the EU will only be possible once the Member States have more practical experience.

The Commission will ensure a coordination role and facilitate the exchange of information concerning best practices and concrete experiences with coexistence among Member States, including cross-border aspects. Based on this collection of data it will report to the European Parliament and the Council in two years' time. The Commission will then, if appropriate, also make an assessment of possible and necessary steps to take.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to give this thorough response.

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