Co-existence: A challenge for European agriculture and supply chains

Co-Extra’s coordinator Yves Bertheau Explains the Basics

Co-Extra’s editorial office interviewed Co-Extra coordinator Yves Bertheau of France’s National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA). Bertheau explains how Co-Extra will  help provide the practical tools needed to keep GM and non-GM crops separate on the farm, in transport, and in processing to make it clear to all food and feed operators, and ultimately to consumers, exactly what they’re buying into. In the end, having a better general understanding of food and feed supply chains will enhance food quality and security in ways reaching far beyond the issue of GMOs.

Yves Bertheau, coordinator of the Co-Extra project.
Yves Bertheau, coordinator of the Co-Extra project.
Co-Extra is supposed to help Europe implement co-existence and traceability. What are co-existence and traceability, and why do we need it?

The main impulse behind Co-Extra goes back to consumer demand for freedom of choice when it comes to agricultural biotechnology and derived products. The issue is that many consumers are critical of genetically modified plants and products thereof, while on the other hand, most of the experts in charge of GMO approvals don’t see any concrete threats to health or the environment. Meanwhile, farmers growing GMOs in other countries are reporting higher yields, greater profits, and seem to have cut back on pesticide use.

The only way to solve this complex equation of offering both consumers and farmers the freedom to use or to reject GMOs is by implementing co-existence and traceability. Traceability has become expected in all European food and feed supply chains, but the traceability of GMOs adds the extra challenge of very strict legal thresholds for unwanted mixing.

So to answer your question, co-existence means growing GM and non-GM crops side by side and keeping them segregated all along the food supply chain. With Europe’s relatively small field sizes, this promises to be a complicated task.

The general idea of traceability is to have operators preserve the identity of their goods to ultimately allow consumers to select the agricultural system they wish to support.

The end result of co-existence and traceability is having cost-effective ways of getting more information on the origins and safety of our foods, which has benefits for more than just GMOs.

Co-Extra involves over 200 scientists from 18 countries with a budget of ca €24 million. Why is realising co-existence and traceability so cost and labour intensive?

The amount of resources being put into Co-Extra is actually in line with other European research projects on food and feed safety and quality under the 6th Framework Programme. For Co-Extra, all this effort is needed because of the complexity of food and feed supply chains combined with the very low legal threshold for unwanted mixing. In just one small box of frozen pizza you could have a few dozen ingredients that come from several different countries. They may have changed hands several times along the way and undergone all kinds of processing.

Using the example of a frozen pizza, freedom of choice means knowing whether or not the bit of soy flour in the dough of the frozen pizza was made from any genetically modified soybeans grown in Argentina, unloaded at Dutch harbour, and processed in French factory. Making all of that information available in a reliable and cost-effective way touches upon a lot of different disciplines. That’s why Co-Extra needs input from experts in agriculture, gene flow modelling, socio-economics, logistics, and molecular biology. Co-Extra even involves legal experts for studying international legal regimes and solutions for liability and redress issues.

That sounds quite complicated. Will it even be possible to get down to such detail?

Ensuring co-existence and traceability of supply chains is complicated at the beginning, but it’s more than just a GMO issue. The traceability of all food and feed supply chains is now mandatory under European legislation. On top of that, we now have to label, for instance, all potentially allergenic products sold in the EU. So we are going to have to learn how to segregate supply chains, if only for health reasons. Co-Extra is thus filling in the gap between the demands of European regulations and their practical implementation.

How will Co-Extra go about addressing the fact that co-existence and traceability measures could make production more expensive for stakeholders involved in food and feed production?

Co-Extra has research teams that are focusing on economic aspects of co-existence and traceability. You can look at the existing systems we have today – the industrial chain that is, with its processing, packaging, cooking costs, etc. – and then consider the costs of all the added measures – controls, tests, sampling – which are seen as the new costs of co-existence. Doing this will actually be rather easy, as it’s already been done in many private and academic studies.

Traceability can be expensive in terms of management, and Co-Extra is coming up with technical and organisational ways of assuaging these extra costs. But not all of the extra costs of traceability are specific to GMOs. Much of the added measures for tracing GM and non GM products are in fact already required by general EU traceability requirements for all foods.

Globally, we do not expect there to be significant additional costs for the co-existence of GM and non-GM supply chains. Current prices for non-GM imports aren’t significantly higher than for GM products. Co-existence at the farm-level seems to work well overseas, but Europe faces challenges with much smaller average field sizes than most of the world’s agricultural areas, making out-crossing and mixing on the farm more of an issue. Co-Extra and other European research projects are working to address this.

Apart from added expenditures, it can be difficult to identify and calculate the benefits of such supply chains organisations. The benefits are generally hidden. For instance, if we succeed in managing this GMO/non-GMO distinction, we will then be able to apply it to other sorting processes, like for allergens, industrial crops versus food crops, irradiated products, or to improve RDO (Registered Designation of Origin) products. One of the main goals of Co-Extra is to give clear ideas of what mastering the segregation of GM and non GM supply chains can teach us about the best practices to keep all food and feed supply chains safe and pure.

Some aspects of Co-Extra could bring economic benefits to stakeholders by unlocking a value added market for GMO free products. Well enforced labelling guidelines can be seen as a way of enhancing product quality. If producers capitalise upon this, they could enjoy some economic advantages.

In the end, it all has to reflect market demands. At the end of the day, it is the market that will decide whether or not it wants GMOs. Our job is to anticipate problems, propose solutions, and ultimately enable the freedom of choice.

  • Yves Bertheau
    Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) Phytopathologie et méthodologies de la détection
    RD 10 - Route de Saint CYR F-78026 Versailles cedex France
    Phone: +33 1 30 83 32 04
    Fax: +33 1 30 83 31 95