Dr. Franz FISCHLER: Approaching the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops in the EU, Roundtable on research results relating to the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops

April 25, 2003

Dr. Franz FISCHLER: Approaching the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops in the EU, Roundtable on research results relating to the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops

Brussels, 24 April 2003

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to open, together with Commissioner Busquin, this Roundtable on the co-existence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic production. Given the significance and sensitivity of this topic, we regarded it as very important to invite a wide range of stakeholders to participate in today's debate.

Farmers and consumers alike are concerned about the freedom of choice of different agricultural production systems . In my understanding, co-existence means that no form of agriculture, GMO or non-GMO, should be excluded in the EU in the future. Similarly, it is also linked to consumer choice. Only if farmers are able to produce the different types of crops in a sustainable way, will consumers have a real choice.

In its Strategy on "Life Sciences and Biotechnology", the European Union committed itself.. "Take the initiative to develop, in partnership with Member States, farmers and other private operators, research and pilot projects to clarify the need and possible options, for agronomic and other measures to ensure the viability of conventional and organic farming and their sustainable co-existence with genetically modified crops".

It underlines the importance of working with you the stakeholders - , and it underlines the importance of research results and the necessity of basing any approach to co-existence on the best available information as regards appropriate farm management measures. By research results I mean not only scientific data in the narrow sense relating, for instance, to the sources and probabilities of gene flow. I also refer to the technical and agronomic possibilities and the cost of implementing farm management measures, where necessary, for keeping the admixture of GM and non-GM crops below certain threshold levels. After all, what interests us most are practical measures to ensure co-existence, and we want to achieve this in an efficient and cost-effective way. At the end of the day, cost-benefit considerations will play an important role in the introduction of GMOs in European agriculture.

Today's Roundtable debate will focus on the farm sector including seed production, because farmers are the first in line to manage the introduction of GMOs for food and feed production in the EU.

Let me remind you that only authorised GM crops, which have been found safe for human or animal health and the environment, may be cultivated in the EU. Therefore, the issue of co-existence relates only and exclusively to the potential economic consequences resulting from the adventitious mixture between GM and non-GM crops. Risks to the environment or health have to be addressed in the GMO authorisation process.

With economic consequences I mean the potential economic loss that conventional or organic farmers could incur if they have to sell their crops at a lower price because of adventitious presence of GMOs above the authorised threshold level.

But we should not forget that co-existence works both ways. If a GM crop has specific qualities, admixture with non-GM crops could have economic consequences for the GMO farmer.

Ensuring the co-existence of different production systems is not a new issue in agriculture. Farmers have a long experience of applying segregation techniques in seed production in order to maintain the purity of seeds of different crop varieties. Another example concerns crops where varieties grown for human consumption must not be mixed with varieties that are grown for industrial purposes, such as in the case of erucic acid rapeseed oil.

However, each case has its own particularities and while we can learn from the successful experience of maintaining purity standards in seed production, the introduction of GMOs in agriculture creates new challenges that need to be treated on their own merit. The labelling thresholds for GMOs are important in this respect.

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 or reduce admixture, as well as their costs.

The studies and experiments carried out so far strongly suggest that farm management measures for co-existence need to be crop-specific. Crops significantly differ with respect to their potential for admixture. For some crops, co-existence could be ensured rather easily. For others, however, current farming practices may be insufficient and appropriate management practices need to be developed. I am sure we will hear much more about this today.

Apart from being crop-specific, there are, in my opinion, 3 other factors that any approach to co-existence needs to take into account:

    It should consider regional differences in natural conditions, farm structures and production patterns.

    It should lead to an effective solution within a reasonable time.

    It should focus on crops for which GM varieties are already approved or will be approved in the near future, and for which there is a substantial probability of admixture.

For this reason, the Roundtable will focus on two crops: maize and rapeseed. These are the two major crops that are candidates for cultivation in the EU in the near future. Some GM varieties of maize and rapeseed have already been approved under the former Release Directive, and more varieties are in the pipeline for approval.

Last month [5 March] the Commission discussed various policy options to address the issue of co-existence and came to the conclusion that an approach based on subsidiarity could provide a fast and efficient solution. Such an approach would give Member States the possibility to develop appropriate measures according to their national and regional conditions, and with the close participation of farmers and their organisations.

Member States could assess their individual needs and choose the policy scheme that suits them best subject to the general condition that the national measures do not contravene Community law. As to the question of liability, the first step must be to find out whether the existing national laws do not already offer sufficient possibilities to seek compensation for potential economic loss in the advent of admixture.

The Commission will contribute to this process by taking on a co-ordinating and advisory function and by promoting the exchange of information on best practices. The relevant Commission services are currently reflecting on how to exercise this role in the best way. This could be extended to the issuing of guidelines on co-existence. The organisation of this Roundtable is an important step in this process.

In this context, it should be mentioned that the Commission has already initiated a number of priority tasks to collect, assess and expand the scientific evidence in this area. To mention one example, a study on co-existence, conducted by the Joint Research Centre, was published last year. This study contains important results, based on models, on the potential admixture between GM and non-GM crops and on possible farm management measures for reducing it. Some of the scientists involved in this study are present today and will present additional results.

I also find it encouraging that an increasing number of initiatives are being taken by the Member States. Let me just mention the extensive field trials with herbicide tolerant crops that are currently being conducted in the United Kingdom. These will provide valuable data on admixture rates under field conditions and on the applicability of farm management practices.

Furthermore, a Danish report on co-existence was recently published, evaluating possible farm management practices adapted to Danish conditions. I believe that the Danish authorities also plan to organise a European conference on co-existence and this would be the first conference of this type later this year. I very much welcome this initiative.

Other Member States are also developing measures to contain the admixture between GM crops and non-GM crops. These are good examples for future work that could be undertaken. Member States will play an important role in this process and I can only encourage their efforts.

What do I expect from the meeting?

I am convinced that today's Roundtable will provide a useful exchange of information on the nature and the sources of admixture, and on the possibilities that farmers have to deal with it. It should bring us a step closer to finding a rational and efficient approach to ensure the co-existence of conventional and organic agriculture with genetically modified crops in the European Union. I hope that the results will also help us to draw up a first set of guidelines on co-existence before the summer, [which can then be refined in the light of future experience].

I wish you a successful meeting.

DN: SPEECH/03/205 Date: 24/04/2003

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