Outcomes of the conference "Co-existence of genetically modified, conventional and organic crops – freedom of choice"

This conference, organised by the European Commission together with the Austrian Presidency of the Council, brought together policy makers, scientists, and a broad range of stakeholders, such as farmers and consumers associations, NGOs, seed producers, importers, food and feed processors, etc. The presentations and discussions focussed on the political and societal aspects of co-existence, with a particular attention to regulatory, technical and economic approaches to co-existence as well as consumer attitudes and market responses.

Joint concluding remarks by Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel and Minister Josef Pröll:

This conference has allowed a very important discussion to take place. Even though we can not deny that there are substantial differences in the views expressed by the participants, we had a constructive debate, which has contributed to a better understanding of the challenges we are facing with co-existence.

As the title of the conference indicates European farmers should have the possibility to choose between traditional, organic and GMO production. Farmers who would like to continue with their current farming practices should be able to do so without having to change their practices, while those who want to cultivate GMOs, should also be able to do so. Similarly, consumers must have a continued choice between traditional, organic, and genetically modified food products. The EU labelling and traceability rules play an important role in this context. 

Although the EU has arguably the most stringent and thorough risk assessment and authorisation procedure for GMOs in the world, many people still feel concerned about the safety of authorised GMOs. A discussion is currently going on between the Member States and the Commission on how to improve the GMO decision making procedure and to increase the transparency of the risk assessment process. The conference on the precautionary principle in GMO policy (Vienna, 18-19 April) will contribute to this debate.

An important issue in relation to co-existence are the purity standards that apply to seeds. There was broad agreement that common labelling thresholds for seeds are necessary. In our view, these should be set in such a way that it is in any case possible to respect the labelling threshold for the final product at the end of the food production chain. We note, however, that there are different views in this respect.

The competitiveness of EU agriculture is becoming increasingly important for the economic well-being of farmers and for the development of rural areas. Many participants have stressed the importance of quality production, including products linked to traditional practices and geographical origin in order to safeguard the European model of agriculture, with its balance of socio-economic, environmental and territorial aspects. Others have emphasized the need to create a culture of innovation and to put science, including biotechnology, at the service of agriculture.

The conference has also reminded us that European consumers are attached to the rich diversity of food produced by farmers using traditional and organic methods, and it is unlikely that this will change in the near future. Some participants expressed concerns that the use of GMOs would not be compatible with traditional production in their regions.

We therefore must try everything to avoid that the introduction of GMOs in European agriculture inflicts economic damage on farmers who want to continue with their current practices. For this, we need co-existence rules and measures that work and that protect traditional and organic farmers in an efficient and cost-effective way.

The rules must be clear and understandable and both, GMO and non-GMO farmers, must be fully informed about their rights and obligations concerning the cultivation of GMOs and the consequences of potential spill-over effects.

Co-existence implies that the decision to produce GM or non-GM crops should be with the individual farmer or with groups of farmers that voluntarily and collectively decide to use one of these production types. It should therefore be the aim to find sustainable solutions in this sense for all regions of the EU. Special attention should be given to seed production.

Well-designed co-existence measures should guarantee that practical and feasible production arrangements will emerge for all crops and production types, including organic farming. In areas where agricultural structures and farming conditions are such that farm-level co-existence can not be achieved for a given crop, other sustainable solutions should be explored.

Member States have begun to develop their rules and measures for co-existence, and some have already passed legislation. The approaches presented by Member States at the conference have certain elements in common, but differ in others, reflecting the variation in conditions that characterise agricultural production across the EU.

The central aspect they have in common is that farmers may use GM crops provided they take precaution and do the necessary to avoid potential negative economic implications that may result from the GMO presence in the neighbours’ crops. We believe that this very important principle should be taken up by all Member States. Before discussions about co-existence started to become more concrete the greatest concern by many stakeholders was that by using GM crops, some farmers may reap a benefit at the expense of others that want to continue with traditional farming methods. We now see that the Member States have taken account of these concerns and ensure that there will be no unfair implications of the use of GM crops.

Developing sustainable co-existence rules and measures is a challenging task and there is much to be gained if the duplication of efforts in the different Member States is avoided. Experiences, best practices and research should be shared, and the European Commission has an important role in facilitating this exchange. The involvement of stakeholders is crucial for the development of successful approaches to co-existence.

One of the outcomes of the conference is that there is a need for Community guidelines for the development of practical co-existence measures, while enough flexibility should be maintained for Member States and regions to tailor the measures to their needs and conditions. Such guidelines should take into account the economic aspects of co-existence, and they should also address cross-border issues.

Different opinions were expressed on whether we need a legal framework for co-existence at Community level. A number of participants have asked for the development of framework legislation. On the other hand, it was recognised that more experience with the co-existence rules and measures developed by the Member States is needed before it can be decided if Community legislation is necessary.

It has repeatedly been mentioned that we are still lacking experience and solid scientific knowledge. To us, this reflects also the need to better communicate what we already know and what still needs to be known. A substantial amount of scientific knowledge is already available, and even more will result from the on-going research activities. We will have to make an effort to obtain a common understanding of the science underlying the co-existence measures. This needs to be done as soon as possible to allow Member States to take up the relevant information in their current efforts to develop co-existence measures.

A considerable amount of research on co-existence has been carried out, in particular with respect to genetically modified maize, and Member States are making efforts to use these results in developing their co-existence legislation. Much of this research is based on model simulations. The models are constantly being improved, but there is a clear need for more field experience in commercial cultivation. We are in a learning process, and we will have to start to develop measures on the best available knowledge, and revise them in the light of practical experience.

If GMOs are cultivated alongside non-GM crops, it cannot be ruled out that GMOs may accidentally end up in non-GM products in quantities that require the product to be labelled as GMO according to the EU labelling requirements. Farmers must therefore have clarity about the rules that apply in case of accidental mixing, and they must also be informed about the possibilities for compensation if they suffer an economic damage.

The general civil liability rules have always been different in the Member States. This may always have had certain implications for the internal market, for some products more than for others. So far, the Member States have come to different results on the need for specific liability rules for co-existence. With more experience we will see whether differences in these rules could affect the internal market and, if necessary, examine which guiding principles could be provided to the Member States.

One of the issues that took centre-stage at the conference was organic farming. On the one hand, there are expectations that organic produce should be free of GMOs, on the other there is the realisation that complete purity is unattainable in practice. There is agreement that GMOs should not be used in the organic production process. However, different opinions were expressed on how much accidental GMO presence should be allowed in the final produce. Discussions between the Member States and the Commission are currently going on in the Council in order to find a workable solution.

Furthermore, we have been reminded that the EU is not isolated from the rest of the world. We import a great range of agricultural commodities as well as processed products. In particular, we are dependent on imports of seeds from third countries. Our internal standards have to take account of these trade relations.

We believe that this conference has allowed all concerned stakeholders to express their opinions. We have been reminded of the opportunities and challenges that are in front of us. Now, we will have to take stock of what has been said and to translate this into policy directions. This discussion will be continued in the Council, which will express its opinion on co-existence in the coming months.