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Coexistence of GM and non-GM products possible

Freedom of choice between genetically modified (GM) and non-GM products is a central goal of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

It is essentially based on the principle of coexistence. EU Member States apply coexistence measures, such as minimum distances between fields with and without GM, that allow GM and non-GM crops to be grown in the same area and transported and sold side by side, preserving their identity in accordance with the relevant labelling rules and purity standards.

A European project (PRICE) coordinated by the Technische Universität München and led by Professor Justus Wesseler has studied the implementation and cost of coexistence strategies for farmers, agri-food supply chain operators and consumers. The study has found that the current measures implemented to ensure coexistence of GM and non-GM crops in the EU are practically feasible, both at farm level and along the supply chain. However, these measures come with additional costs, which are partly paid by consumers and other supply chain stakeholders [3].

Measures at farm level 
The PRICE results show that various technical measures, such as applying buffer zones or different sowing dates resulting in asynchrony in flowering (as recommended by the Seed Producers’ Association), are effective in ensuring compliance with the official 0.9% threshold in diverse maize farming systems across Europe. Field trials with non-pollinating cytoplasmic male sterile maize in Germany, the Czech Republic and Spain showed that this would be an effective biological measure for preventing spread of GM varieties. The results also indicated that the current uniform isolation distances set up by most Member States are disproportionate to the official threshold and may lead to unnecessary costs to farmers. The researchers asked 1,473 farmers in Germany, Spain, Portugal and the UK what they thought about implementing coexistence measures. Both farmers growing GM maize and those growing non-GM maize indicated that they consider the application of buffer zones and keeping data for 5 years practical. They had more problems with applying different sowing times and the issue of liability for damage. 

PRICE researchers developed a prototype of a web-based Decision Support Tool (DST) for farmers, advisers, co-operatives and policy-makers to account for factors affecting adventitious presence of GM crops, such as climate, predominant wind direction, landscape patterns and agronomic characteristics (flowering dates). For maize, the DST allows the prediction of the distribution of adventitious presence of GM material in non-GM maize fields. The tool calculates the probability of a certain level of crosspollination between GM and non-GM fields and identifies the effect of a specific buffer zone or a difference in flowering time, making it feasible to implement proportional coexistence measures.

Segregation in the supply chain
A survey among stakeholders in the maize and soya supply chain in Germany, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland showed that the vast majority of imported soybean for the feed industry is already GM but there is also a market for non-GM products. Separate non-GM supply chains, such as that for ‘Ohne Gentechnik’ labelled milk in Germany, are niche markets. Such non-GM products are usually integrated in a wider marketing strategy that focuses on ‘organic’ or refers to a specific traditional or regional origin.

In general, retailers or food processors are taking the lead in promoting the definitions of voluntary non-GM standards. Once the segregated supply chain is up and running, its operation becomes routine. Feed processing is a critical point for the risk of adventitious GM presence. There is widespread use of dedicated facilities (non-GM or combined with organic) by compound feed processors to ensure compliance with regulations. However, large dedicated non-GM facilities often work under capacity and are unable to leverage economies of scale.

PRICE has found that coexistence of GM and non-GM products in Europe is possible under current EU legislation. The availability of non-GM soybean in third Countries, the non-GM price premium, the segregation costs along the supply chain and the willingness of EU consumers to pay for the non-GM attribute are crucial factors for the economic sustainability of non-GM voluntary standards in the long run. Lower thresholds, or other stricter measures, would cause difficulties for the supply of non-GM feedstock.

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