Opinion Pieces: GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS IN AGRICULTURE - THE ARGUMENTS FOR & AGAINST

Article excerpt

International Trade Forum asks two leading experts to present the case about genetically modified organisms.

MOLLY BURLEY-DÉPRET

Communications Officer

Green Biotechnology Europe, EuropaBio

THE CASE FOR GMOs:

The global trade in agricultural commodities: GM crops are here to stay

In the spring of 2011, newspapers reported that animal feed imports to the European Union (EU) would soon be allowed to contain trace amounts (0.1%) of genetically modified (GM) material not yet approved in the EU. There were conditions, of course: the GM material must be approved in the exporting country and be under review by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The legislation that provided this 'technical solution' to GM low-level presence was the result of efforts to avoid trade disruptions due to the EU's 'zero tolerance' policy, such as the 2009 disruption of soy exports from the United States when trace amounts of two unapproved GM maize varieties were discovered. This new 0.1% tolerance level, which still technically maintains the zero tolerance policy, is most likely only a stop-gap solution and a workable tolerance level will be necessary. The legislation does not cover food imports, despite their unrealistic separation from feed. Food companies are rightly concerned that they will have shipments turned away from European ports and have made their concerns clear to EU politicians.

The story of the EU and imports is incomplete without considering why a real tolerance level is necessary in the first place. One crucial factor is the overwhelming global popularity of GM crops, 15.4 million farmers around the globe currently grow GM crops such as maize, soy, oilseed and cotton, an increase of 10% since 2009.1 Each year since GM crops were introduced, plantings have risen. These farmers, 90% of whom are smallholders, cultivate 148 million hectares of GM crops, roughly the size of the territory of France, Germany and Spain combined. In August, the most recent statistics from Brazil2 revealed that in 2011-12, 82.7% of Brazilian soybeans will be GM, an annual expansion of 13% - four times the amount predicted. With the momentum for new GM approvals in North and South America, Asia, and increasingly in Africa, regions that are slower to approve GM crops or imported products are falling behind. The odds are simply higher that trace amounts of GM products that are not yet approved in the EU could be in shipments.

Exporting countries are taking the segregation of GM and non-GM material seriously, particularly since it has profound effects along the value chain: farmers, processing facilities, shipping companies and their customers are all affected if segregation is not handled properly at each stage. On a recent visit to Canada, I examined the segregation process and learned firsthand why a workable tolerance level for unapproved GM material is essential. Jim and Judy Gowland, farmers near Toronto, grow non-GM soy primarily for export to Japan, a non-GM soy niche market. They also grow GM maize. In order for their soybean harvest to be accepted for processing, they have to ensure that any GM material from maize harvesting is not mixed with the soybeans. However, they, and others, pointed out that no method of segregation is perfect; some level of tolerance for as yet unapproved GM material is needed to avoid trade disruptions.

Interestingly, the Gowlands did not approach GM or non-GM crops ideologically; rather, they plant the crops that ensure their farms' viability and profitability. They supply the markets that they find attractive - after all, farming is a business. Speaking with Dale Mountjoy, another farmer near Toronto, 1 learned that his GM maize yields much more than conventional maize, earning up to euro 86 more per acre. The crop requires less tillage, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. It saves him time and money, and he uses less fuel, helping reduce carbon émissions. …