European Commission

Coexistence: Guidelines for GM crop production

(23 July) The European Commission’s coexistence guidelines have been published, and many questions remain unanswered. The Commission aims to leave it to member states to design and implement practical coexistence strategies. Will the conflict surrounding genetically modified crops be carried into the villages?

Franz Fischler, EU Commissioner for Agriculture: “What constitutes the most efficient and cost-effective strategy will depend on national, regional and local conditions. A single EU-wide approach is not feasible here. The recommendations are based on the latest research findings and provide a firm foundation on which member states can build.”

Coexistence: lots of rules or none at all
In Germany too, there is much debate about appropriate coexistence rules. Farmers in particular want the legislation to be as clear as possible. It should also specify where possible who pays for the measures and analyses required.

Others see no need for further legislation. They believe that the existing legal framework is sufficient to resolve disputes.

Several EU countries are planning national conferences on coexistence legislation.

Today the European Commission has adopted its long-announced guidelines for the coexistence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming. It has confined its recommendations to a set of general principles. Practical measures to ensure compliance with the thresholds for GMO contamination are to be developed by member states at national level.

In essence the guidelines state that during the introductory phase of a new production type in a region, farmers who introduce the new production type should bear the responsibility for implementing adequate purity measures. Farmers should be able to choose the production type they prefer, without imposing the necessity to change already established production patterns in the neighbourhood.

In simple terms: farmers wishing to grow GM crops must ensure that no undesirable spread of GM material occurs. The issue of liability is largely ignored in the Commission’s guidelines. Member states are simply advised to examine whether existing national civil liability provisions are sufficient and whether appropriate insurance schemes can be offered. In two year’ time the Commission aims to submit a report on liability experiences gathered so far.

GMO regulations finally approved

The previous day the European agricultural ministers had laid the foundations for the introduction of national coexistence legislation by formally approving a compromise agreed with the European Parliament in early July on approval, labelling and traceability of genetically modified food and feed. As a result, the two EU regulations for a new approval and labelling system can be published in the Official Journal and will come into force 20 days later. After a transitional period of six months, so probably in February or March 2004, the food industry will then have to label its products in accordance with the new regulations.

A further aspect of the GMO package is that member states may pass national legislation to avoid adventitious contamination – the legal requirement for implementing the guidelines adopted today.

Crop-specific measures

The Commission guidelines recommend that member states develop transparent coexistence legislation based on scientific evidence and in cooperation with all concerned. They should ensure an equitable balance between the interests of farmers of all production types. Coexistence measures developed by member states should not go beyond what is necessary to comply with EU thresholds for GMO labelling.

Measures should be crop-specific to take into account the differences in dispersal risk between, for example, oilseed rape and potatoes. The Commission regards the continuous monitoring and timely sharing of experience to be imperative.

Local consultation, no GM-free zones

The Commission has proposed to member states a non-definitive list of measures for regulating the production of genetically modified crops:

  • Measures at individual farm level (isolation distances, buffer zones, pollen barriers such as hedges for example)
  • Cooperation between neighbouring farms (sharing information about planting plans, using varieties which flower at different times)
  • Monitoring and notification procedures
  • Farmer training
  • Sharing of information and offering advice

In the Commission’s view, priority should be given to measures that can be implemented at farm level in close consultation with neighbouring farms. Appropriate regional measures should be considered only if sufficient levels of product purity cannot be achieved in this way.

The Commission has ruled out national GM-free zones. It will, however, accept voluntary, regional GM-free agreements limited to specific crop types, if coexistence cannot be ensured by any other means.

Not all European agricultural ministers are convinced by the amount of leeway the Commission has given them with regard to developing coexistence measures. Germany, Austria and Luxembourg have spoken out in favour of a single European legal framework.

  • Federal Consumer Protection Minister Renate Künast warned against carrying the conflict into the villages. Farmers needed legal and planning certainty, said Künast in Brussels. She feared that allowing each country to draw up its own legislation on coexistence would result in unfair competition.
  • Some ministers advocated a two-tier approach: first experience should be gathered in maize and oilseed rape cultivation using the guidelines, and if the measures chosen proved inadequate, a legally binding framework would be drawn up.
  • In the view of Franz Fischler, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, EU-wide regulations would be inappropriate. Fischler justified the Commission’s conservative approach, pointing out that efficient and cost-effective measures would have to be adapted to national, regional or local conditions.

New approvals soon

The guidelines complete the European legal framework for the use of genetically modified plants. The European Commission announced that it would resume its examination of approval applications for new GMOs. It will probably not be long therefore before the first licences are granted and the ‘de facto’ moratorium, which has been in force since 1998, comes to an end. European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne is working on the basis that the first approval procedures will be completed in the autumn.