As of yet, no GMOs have been grown in Austria. Thus, no practical experience exists concerning the co-existence of conventional agriculture and agricultural systems using genetically modified crops. It is the explicit goal of Austrian politics to safeguard GM-free conventional and organic agriculture. In the co-existence debate, Austrian politicians and representatives of farmers associations stress that the co-existence of different agricultural systems can hardly be realised due to the country's small field sizes and its high concentration of organic farms. Organic agriculture is an important economic factor for Austria, which has the highest prevalence of organic farming of any EU Member State. More than 11 percent of all farms, on 14 percent of the total agricultural area practice organic farming. Consequently, the legal framework in Austria for GM crops is strict. The national government has developed guiding laws on genetic engineering, but the responsibility for implementing these national laws and for developing detailed co-existence regulations lies with the federal states.
Austria has implemented all EU regulations on biotechnology and genetic engineering. The central part of the Austrian legislation on genetic engineering is the Gene Technology Act with its last modification in November 2005.
The law covers application, deliberate release, and trade with GMOs in Austria. Field trials with GMOs are covered by this law and must be approved by state authorities. The law sets general conditions for the cultivation of GMOs intended to facilitate the coexistence of different agricultural systems. They are:
Based on this legal framework, seven of nine state governments have passed Biotechnology Precautionary Bills. These are the federal states of Burgenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Salzburg, Tirol, Upper Austria, and Vienna. The state of Styria has notified its biotechnology regulation to the Commission of the European Union. The state of Vorarlberg has covered the cultivation of GMOs in existing laws on environmental protection and rural development.
The Biotechnology Precautionary Bills are all essentially similar. They contain directives on the release of GMOs, regulate the notification duties of farmers, detail compensation in case of economic damages as well as fines for not complying with the bill. The Biotechnology Precautionary Bills of the federal states require that farmers planning to cultivate GMOs enter information into a public register three months prior to planting. The national and state legislation on genetic engineering requires farmers and traders to allow for inspections. However, detailed co-existence rules like separation distances between conventional and GM cultures are not part of the Biotechnology Precautionary Bills.
Some federal states have tried to legally prohibit the cultivation of GMOs. In 2005, Upper Austria passed such a law. The European Court criticised the law to be not compliant with the common European legislation on genetic engineering. Other Austrian federal states tried to prevent the cultivation of GMOs by strict regulations in the state law on genetic engineering. Styria, for example, wanted to set an upper limit for GMOs in conventional harvests at 0.1 percent. The European Commission ruled that the law was designed to prohibit the cultivation of all GMOs. Because the EU officially does not allow Member States to prevent the use of approved GM technology, the commission struck down the law. Carinthia’s Biotechnology Precautionary Bill, however, was deemed acceptable by the European Commission. Its bill prohibits the cultivation of GMOs in biological reserves and ecologically sensitive areas. In Carinthia, the growing of GMOs must be notified and approved. The law demands minimum separation distances, yet it does not detail them. The other federal states based their legislation on the regulations of Carinthia.
A maximum threshold level of GMO presence in conventional seeds is also an important prerequisite for ensuring coexistence, according to the Austrian legislature. The directive on seeds and genetic engineering, which entered into force on 22 December 2001, sets an upper limit for genetically modified presence in conventional seeds at 0.1 percent. The Commission of the European Union considers this directive to be too restrictive, hindering the free trade of seeds. Since 2004, an infringement case is pending.
The Austrian Biotechnology Act provides a framework for liability and compensation rules to address potential economic losses incurred by conventional or organic farmers in the vicinity of biotech crops. The Biotechnology Precautionary Bills of the federal states add more details to the liability schemes. According to the state laws, farmers growing GMOs must compensate for economic damages on nearby conventional and organic fields. The compensation shall equal the actual economic loss.