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EU Commission

New coexistence - Guidelines in the EU: Cultivation bans are now permitted

On 13 July 2010, the EU commission decided on new guidelines for coexistence. These mark a turning point in the European policy on gene technology. Essentially, the Member States are now allowed to enforce their own concept of ‘Coexistence’. Whereas previously ‘gene technology-free zones were only possible on the basis of voluntary agreements, Countries may now prohibit the cultivation of certain genetically modified plants.

John Dalli, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy: “The Member States need more flexibility to be able to regulate coexistence.”

The new coexistence guidelines are valid with immediate effect. They are addressed the Member states, but are only recommendations. In the future the Member States are to a large extent free to regulate cultivation of genetically modified plants. They can abandon national coexistence specifications or they can also order “gene technology free zones”.

**Economic damage. The purpose of coexistence measures is the avoidance of economic damage through undesired GMO contamination. Until now this type of contamination was defined by a threshold value: admixes of (approved) GMO up to 0.9% were regarded as tolerable. Now any GMO admixture can be basically regarded as an economical damage.

The EU Member States are obligated to regulate the cultivation of genetically modified plants through suitable specifications in such a way that different agricultural systems with or without gene technology can exist side by side in a sustainable manner. The new guidelines finalised on 13 July by the EU Commission for coexistence differ clearly from the previous recommendations from 2003. Until now the mandatory measures of the Member States had to be “appropriate” to maintain the “accidental, technically unavoidable” GMO admixing in conventional stocks under the EU-wide effective designation threshold value of 0.9%. In future national cultivation regulations can be so constructed to prevent much lower GMO proportions. The experience of the last few years has shown, according to the Commission, that the economic harm due to the entry of GMOs into the conventional cultivation system have occurred not only through exceeding the designation threshold of 0.9%. In some markets high costs have been incurred for the producers due to separating GMO from non-GMO products. In addition, the introduction of different standards for GMO-free designations in some Member States led to the decision of the Commission to make the national margins more flexible. With this the EU Commission has abandoned the basic ideas of the previous guidelines that coexistence measures should exclusively serve the maintenance of the GMO designation threshold value. In this connection, the guidelines also provide the possibility to designate GMO-free zones. Thus, de facto, it is conceded that the Member states can ban the cultivation of genetically modified plants regionally and also extensively on their own territory. Until now, such gene technology-free zones were only possible on the basis of voluntary agreements. Legally binding cultivation bans had been repeatedly declared by the European Court to be illegal.

The new guidelines at a glance:

  • National coexistence measures should be worked out in cooperation with all the involved organisations and groups.

  • The measures should be appropriate to avoid unnecessary hindrance of certain production systems.

  • The margins of admixing of GMO and non-GMO products should be in line with market demands. Depending on the country and region as well as the existing markets, the measures can be taken to ensure adherence to the designated threshold value of 0.9% or lower. If no ecological harm is expected no restrictions to cultivation should be applied.

  • The measures taken should take distinctive regional and local features into consideration, for example the size and geographical distribution of fields, changes in crop rotation, natural factors affecting pollen dispersion such as topography and climate.

  • The Member States can extensively ban cultivation of GM-plants if other methods of protection of conventional or ecological agriculture are not suitable.

**Changing the coexistence guidelines just the first step*

The new coexistence guidelines are just a first instrument of the changes to the European policy on gene technology announced last year. In the opinion of the Commission, so that more legal security is given to national bans on cultivation, the regulations for EU releases should be modified. Subsequently it should be generally possible to decide about the cultivation of EU approved GM-plants on other grounds than health and environmental risks. Until now a ban on cultivation in the Member States could only be founded on the so-called protection clause in the release regulations. The centralised EU approval system based on the scientific evaluation of health and environmental risks through the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) should be maintained. In addition, the import of GMO products that have EU approval should not be nationally prohibited.

The European Parliament and the Council still have to sanction the changes to the EU law. This will probably not occur within the next 2 years.

National coexistence measures

According to report published by the Commission in April 2009, 15 EU countries have passed national coexistence regulations. These are based still on the old EU Commission guidelines published in 2003, whereby the coexistence measures for the amount of GMO in non-GMO cultivation systems should be limited to at maximum 0.9%. After the publication of the new guidelines for coexistence is can be assumed that the Member Countries will reconsider their national coexistence measures.

The existing national coexistence measures differ sometimes very strongly from country to country. Regional differences in agriculture, such as for example the size of fields or the climatic conditions are given as reasons. In the six Member States Germany, the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Slovakia stricter measures for the separation of GMO-fields from fields with ecological cultivation than for between fields with GMO and convention cultivation. Some Member States stipulate particular practices for the cultivation of GM-plants in the vicinity of nature conservancy areas (e.g. Natura 2000 areas) or prohibit this altogether. Since these special regulations are not connected with coexistence, the EU Commission regarded the legal situation as not clarified.

In 2008, the EU Commission installed the “European Office for Coexistence” which was meant to further improve the efficiency of technical coexistence measures. Working together with the Member States and pressure groups involved, recommendations for culture type-specific separation methods are to be developed.