Will farmers carry the burden of GMO contamination?

Strong legislation needed to ensure the survival of GMO-free farming

Feature story - 4 March, 2003
Genetically engineered (GE) crops, as any other living organism, grow and reproduce. That's why genetic contamination is a problem with the potential to multiply. A proposal in the EU aims to put the burden of controlling contamination onto farmers seeking to keep their fields GE-free.

Greenpeace marks a maize field with signs showing corn with a 'question mark' indicating that 1 in 200 maize crops can be genetically contaminated if the draft EU seed directive is passed .

Once GE crops are planted on a commercial scale, the measures to avoid contamination can substantially increase the final cost of conventional and organic products. The EU Joint Research Centre has calculated an increase of costs as high as 41 percent for oilseed rape seed production, and 9 percent for conventional maize production in Europe.

One would think that politicians would see it as their responsibility to prevent genetic contamination from happening. However, this doesn't seem to be the case in the European Union (EU). An unpublished "Communication on Co-existence," which Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler will soon present, takes the view that legislative action at European Community level should be avoided.

Instead, the Commission's Agriculture Services considers an approach where preventative action would be limited to coordinating and advisory functions. They also assume that Co-existence measures should be strictly limited to the economic aspects of genetic contamination and propose that seeds contaminated below certain threshold (0.3 - 0.7 percent depending on the crop) should not even need to be labelled as genetically modified.

Only comprehensive legislation can save the purity of seeds, ensure the survival of uncontaminated conventional and organic farming in Europe and ensure the right of consumers and farmers to say "no" to GE products. Clear liability regulations following the "polluter pays" principle must ensure that extra costs are borne by the producers and growers of GE crops responsible for the contamination.

Instead, the leaked Communication argues that the burden of Co-existence measures "should fall on the economic operators (farmers, seed suppliers, etc.) who intend to gain a benefit from the specific cultivation model they have chosen." According to this view, farmers who have an economic interest in ensuring that their products remain GE-free, would have to pay to avoid contamination instead of those responsible for the contamination.

We call on decision-makers in the EU to adopt clear and effective legislation to protect the agricultural assets of Europe and prevent genetic contamination. Failure to do so could have severe consequences: environmental damage to farmland and biodiversity, economic loss for conventional and organic farmers, and higher prices for

the overwhelming majority of consumers who want to buy and eat non-GE food.

Read the Communication from Fischler to the Commission on Co-existence of Genetically Modified, Conventional and Organic Crops. (pdf)

Read EU study finally published: Co-existence of GE/non-GE farming (May 2002)