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Update and commentary on Europe's moves toward formal contamination rule

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(May 18, 2001 -- Cropchoice commentary) --The European Commission wants to formalize its rules for dealing with genetic contamination of conventional seeds.

"This is integration of all relevant standards for seed certification into one piece of legislation," said Dieter Obst of the Health and Consumer Protection General Directorate. "The main objective is to ensure that the product of the harvest (crops) doesn’t exceed a level of 1 percent contamination from authorized gmos (genetically modified organisms)."

The 15 European Union countries have been following an informal agreement to deal with this issue. It allows for "no detectable presence" of genetic material from unapproved transgenic foods in conventional seeds. (Cropchoice views such language as a coded admission of widespread genetic contamination. All one need consider is the never-ending StarLink debacle. To guarantee 0 percent contamination would require testing every seed; there’d be nothing to plant. Perhaps the answer is a worldwide moratorium on these foods.) The Union members allow for 0.5 percent contamination of seeds from the handful of transgenic varieties they’ve approved for cultivation. Higher levels would require labeling the seeds. Come harvest time, if those crops contain more than 1 percent contamination, they must carry a label to that effect.

However, this loose framework likely will give way to a formal rule, said Chris van Winden, representative for the Netherlands in the Union’s Permanent Committee on Seeds and Propagation Material for Agriculture and Forestry.

The Committee is discussing several points, such as:
1. thresholds for contamination of conventional seed,
2. separation of transgenic and conventional varieties in the field, and
3. rotation periods between plantings of these crops to keep the soil clear of their residue.

For example, policymakers are discussing an allowance of 0.5 percent genetic contamination from approved transgenic varieties in self-pollinating plants and 0.3 percent for cross pollinators, said van Winden, noting that the maximum allowable contamination level likely would remain at 0.5 percent in the formal rule. Any contamination above that would make seed ineligible for certification as being free of genetically modified organisms.

A working document will be ready for the European Commission to discuss in the next few months. It will then pass binding legislation.

News of this work on a formal rule comes as Greenpeace announced that independent tests on three types of conventional corn seed in Austria found genes from Monsanto and Syngenta transgenic varieties that are not legal for planting in Europe. Earlier tests revealed similar problems in Germany.

In 2000, a batch of oil-seed rape was grown in France, Germany, Luxembourg, Sweden and the UK that contained approximately 1 percent transgenic characteristics, which the EU so far has not approved for cultivation. Officials in France and Germany destroyed the contaminated rape in the fields, said Esther Kok, who works on gmo safety and detection for the Rikilt State Institute for Quality Control of Agricultural Products in the Netherlands. Other member countries hesitated out of concern about the legal basis for destroying the crops.

French authorities chose not to destroy fields of corn containing unapproved transgenic varieties. Again, concerns over liability were at issue, she said.

However, Greek officials moved swiftly to destroy fields of transgenic cotton that had not recieved approval for planting.

Effectively stemming the spread of transgenic varieties, especially those approved for cultivation, is increasingly difficult, van Winden said. He suggested that an allowable level of genetic contamination differs little from the various grass seeds that farmers might find in a bag of wheat seed.

This brings up the issue of pollen drift and its implications when the biotechnology-pharmaceutical-agriculture-chemical conglomerates design crops with genetic codes featuring vaccines and industrial enzymes. Folks might not want their food to contain any (zero, zilch, nada) of those traits. Not everyone has the disease that the medicine in a particular food crop is meant to fight. For those millions of people, ingesting food with even a few stray "miracle cure" genes might be a miraculously bad thing.

Such specialized crops likely would come from greenhouse environments, predicted Esther Kok at the Rikilt Institute. However, she cautioned, if transgenic crops with medicinal and enzymatic genes do end up in open fields, effectively segregating them could pose problems.