GM contamination claims 'exaggerated', claims study

Related tags Gm crops Genetically modified organism

Claims by anti-GM groups that genetically modified crops cannot
co-exist with 'normal' ones without causing contamination have been
exaggerated, and increasing the regulatory burden on GM crops in
Europe would be inequitable and disproportionate, according to a
new study released in the UK last week.

The study, by PG Economics, suggests that GM crops can co-exist with conventional and organic crops in the EU without causing any economic or marketing problems - undermining the principal argument for the tough regulations restricting GM crop plantings throughout the European Union.

Europe's de facto​ moratorium on regulatory approval of new GM crops has been in place since 1998, but with the recent approval of new labelling and traceability regulations, increasing numbers of GM products could soon be hitting supermarket shelves across the trading bloc. The moratorium on European plantings means that all these products will be imports - primarily from the US - but with EU farmers soon able to plant their own GM crops, the fear is that European regulators will be too strict - or not strict enough - in determining exactly how and where these crops can be grown.

According to PG Economics, the principal arguments put forward by anti-GM groups are that there is no demand for GM crops in Europe, and that GM crops and organic crops cannot be grown close to one another without cross-contamination and inevitable economic harm to organic growers.

But, the report argues, both these claims are exaggerations.

The market for non-GM products (i.e. where buyers specifically ask for GM-free ingredients) is centred on just two products - soybeans and maize, the first two products to receive approval from the EU prior to the 1998 moratorium - and in fact remains relatively small: just 27 per cent of total consumption for soybeans and 36 per cent for maize. "In other word, a significant majority of total consumption does not require identified non-GM material,"​ the report said.

As for the threat to organic crop production, the report points out that just 3.5 per cent of total EU15 arable land is set aside for organic crops, and that 90 per cent of this is in fact grassland - leaving just 10 per cent for crops. Organic production of maize, oilseed rape and sugar beet, the three crops applying for regulatory approval for GM plantings in the future, accounts for just 0.41 per cent of the total production at present, and given the slow growth of organic farming in general, this figure is unlikely to increase significantly over the next five years, the report suggests - meaning that the risk of contamination from GM will remain extremely remote.

"Evidence from the only current example of where GM crops are grown commercially in the EU [GM maize in Spain - approval for which was given before the moratorium was introduced] shows that GM, conventional (non-GM) and organic maize production have co-existed without economic and commercial problems,"​ the report said. Only two isolated instances of GM presence in organic maize crops were reported in 2001.

In the US, where GM crops are far more widespread, the report shows that organic food crops have been unaffected by the growth of the GM market. The US organic areas of soybeans and corn increased by 270 per cent and 187 per cent respectively between 1995 and 2001, a period in which GM crops were introduced and reached 68 per cent and 26 per cent shares of total plantings of soybeans and corn.

"Also, survey evidence amongst US organic farmers shows that the vast majority (92 per cent) have not incurred any direct, additional costs or incurred losses due to GM crops having been grown near their crops,"​ the report said.

"For the future, the likelihood of economic and commercial problems of co-existence arising remains very limited, even if a significant development of commercial GM crops and increased plantings of organic crops were to occur,"​ the study claims.

"EU arable farmers have been successfully growing specialist crops (such as high erucic acid oilseed rape and waxy maize) for many years, near to other crops of the same species, without compromising the high purity levels required. Some changes to farming practices on some farms may be required once GM crops are commercialised. This will however, only apply where GM crops are located near non-GM or organic crops for which the non GM status of the crop is important (e.g. where buyers do not wish to label products as being GM or derived from GM according to EU labelling regulations).

"These changes are likely to focus on the use of separation distances and buffer crops (of non-GM crops) between the GM crops and the 'vulnerable' non GM/organic crop and the application of good husbandry (weed control) practices; GM crop planting farmers are already made aware of these practices as part of recommendations for growing GM maize in Spain (co-existence and refuge requirements) provided by seed suppliers in their 'GM crop stewardship programmes'."

The different certification bodies in the EU organic sector can also take action to facilitate coexistence, the study suggests. "Applying a more consistent, practical, proportionate and cost effective policy towards GMOs (i.e. adopt the same policy as it applies to the adventitious presence of other non-organic material) would allow them to better exploit market opportunities and to minimise the risks of publicity about inconsistent organic definitions and derogations for the use of non-organic ingredients and inputs damaging consumer confidence in all organic produce."

But perhaps the biggest threat to coexistence of GM and non-GM products is tbe potential regulatory burden. "Lastly, it is important to emphasise the issues of context and proportionality. If highly onerous GM crop stewardship conditions are applied to all farms that might wish to grow GM crops, even though the vast majority of such crops would not be located near to organic-equivalent crops or conventional crops for which the non GM status is important, this would be disproportionate and inequitable,"​ the report concludes.

"In effect, conventional farmers, who account for 99.59 per cent of the current, relevant EU arable crop farming area could be discouraged from adopting a new technology, that is likely to deliver farm level benefits (yield gains, cost savings) and provide wider environmental gains (reduced pesticide use, switches to more environmentally benign herbicides, reduced levels of greenhouse gas emissions)."

Related topics Market Trends Food Safety & Quality

Related news