Brussels, 18 Oct 2004
Having strengthened its regulations on the traceability and labelling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Commission has recently lifted the EU's de facto moratorium on the technology and begun authorising new varieties for sale in Europe.
Despite this clear political endorsement of GM food and feed products, however, many consumers and retailers remain opposed to the technology, and while millions of tonnes of genetically modified crops are grown and consumed in other areas of the world, Europe's countryside remains virtually GM free.
That is why the biotechnology industry in Europe is so keen to promote the example being set by maize farmers in Spain, where GM corn varieties have been grown alongside conventional crops for the last seven years. This year, some 60,000 hectares of Bt maize are being cultivated commercially around the country, representing around 12 per cent of Spain's total maize harvest.
In order to demonstrate the effectiveness of both the GM technology and the measures used to ensure its effective co-existence with conventional maize cultivation, a visit was organised for journalists from across the EU to a farm cooperative in the Zaragoza region of Spain, by the biotechnology industry representative organisation Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe (ABE).
According to Miguel Leon, Monsanto Spain's director of government and public affairs and ABE representative, when considering co-existence it is important to understand that it is not a health or environmental safety issue. 'Co-existence is the practice of protecting the rights of all farmers to do the type of agriculture that they want - all health and environmental issues are considered before a product is authorised for cultivation,' he says.
Mr Leon points to the fact that during seven years of cultivation of Bt maize in Spain, there have been no cases where coexistence measures have failed and resulted in economic loss for Spanish farmers. 'Co-existence is nothing new; farmers have been doing it for millennia,' he explained. 'In Spain, co-existence has operated smoothly for seven years, and that's without formal rules. Industry, in the absence of such rules, has issued guidelines and advice on how farmers can manage co-existence issues.'
To support his claims, journalists were invited to visit the Bujaraloz Farmer Cooperative, just outside Zaragoza in the Aragon region of Spain. Eduardo Escanillas, president of the cooperative, explained that both GM and conventional corn are grown in Bujaraloz, with around 13 per cent of its total area given over to genetically modified Bt maize. 'I firmly believe the future is in GM: it produces better crop yields, and in a nutshell, farmers make more money,' he said.
Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that has been used as a pesticide spray for over 40 years, in particular, against corn borers, which in areas of high infestation can have a substantial impact of crop yields. In Bt maize, the Bt protein is added to the maize as a highly effective self-defence mechanism against such pests. As Pioneer's Mike Hall highlighted, however, the qualities of Bt maize - its taste, look and nutritional value - are all the result of conventional hybrid farming practices: 'The genetic modification is simply there to protect the quality of the hybrid seed,' he told CORDIS News.
In an area of high corn borer presence, such as Aragon, the impact that such protection can have is significant, with yields of GM corn averaging 15 tonnes per hectare compared with 13 tonnes for conventional maize. Furthermore, the increased cost of the GM seeds compared with conventional hybrid varieties is outweighed by avoiding the cost of the pesticides that must be applied two of three times to non-GM fields.
Javier Escanillas is a corn farmer on the cooperative, and this is the first year that he has grown GM crops alongside his fields of conventional maize. When CORDIS News asked him why he had decided to plant GM corn, he said that it was due to having seen the benefits for other farmers on the cooperative. 'I saw that GM was good for nature with less need for pesticides, and good for farmers providing higher yields - a win-win situation.'
Commenting on how he had found the experience, Mr Escanillas said that although he hadn't harvested yet, if the results are as good as he expects them to be, next year he will move over to Bt maize production on all 45 hectares of his land. Co-existence was an important issue for him, because while his GM corn, like all GM corn grown in Spain, was sold as animal feed and clearly labelled as genetically modified, much of his non-GM corn could end up being consumed by humans as corn starch.
Having learned from other farmers on the cooperative and by attending conference and seminars organised by the biotech industry, Mr Escanillas learned to apply various techniques to ensure that cross pollination and other forms of contamination between his two crops could not occur. For example, GM fields are surrounded by a 'refuge' barrier of conventional crops that helps to prevent cross-pollination, and the different varieties are planted at different times to ensure that neither is pollinating at the same time. In the most striking demonstration of the effectiveness of Bt maize, the farmer showed the contrast between the tall straight rows of GM corn, and the sagging, corn borer infested conventional plant. 'The ironic thing is that the healthy-looking plants are for the pigs, while we humans must eat the other lot,' he said.
As far as Miguel Leon and Mike Hall are concerned, the experience of Bujaraloz Cooperative proves that farmers are more than capable of ensuring the effective co-existence of GM and conventional crops, and it is an example that could be followed throughout the rest of Europe. 'This is the way that farmers have always worked, and it is nothing new for them,' concluded Mr Hall. 'Co-existence is an important issue, but not an overly complicated one.'
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