Coexistence of GM crops with conventional and organic production
National Farmers’ Union
07 October 2003
Coexistence of GM crops with conventional and organic production
The NFU supports the development of a framework for coexistence of GM crops with conventional and organic production. We believe that farmers should have access to technologies that have received regulatory approval and should be free to choose their preferred production systems. It is fundamental that farmers should continue to have access to conventional and organic seed varieties. We believe that GM crops should be thoroughly assessed for food and environmental safety prior to commercial release, be grown according to agreed production protocols and that a framework for post-market monitoring should be in place as an extra safeguard to help identify any unintended effects that might arise.
Our key aims are to avoid conflict between producers and to ensure that the industry as a whole can continue to enable consumer choice.
The NFU has consulted widely over the past year to gather views from its farmer members, including a series of in-depth focus groups (summarised in Appendix I). While we recognise the diversity of opinion within our membership, we believe that the following position offers a workable way forward should the Government decide that GM crops can be grown commercially in the UK.
1. Responsibility for ensuring coexistence
We support the European Commission’s position that coexistence is primarily an economic issue. Rules are already in place governing the assessment of GM crops for food safety and environmental effects. Precedent already exists in specialist production sectors (eg certified seed and organic production) that the grower of the sensitive crop takes responsibility for meeting any purity standards required to access that market. It would therefore be disproportionate to allow the entire responsibility for implementing management measures for coexistence fall on the grower of a GM crop that has food safety and environmental approval.
Nevertheless, if the Government were to decide to permit commercial growing of GM crops in the UK, it would be desirable to put in place measures to promote the responsible use of the new technology and advise growers on best practice. Such measures could also help build wider confidence amongst producers and consumers.
2. Protocols for growers
We feel strongly that strategies and best practice for coexistence are primarily an industry responsibility and should continue to be developed and implemented with the participation of farmers and other stakeholders in the production chain.
We support the European Commission recommendation that measures for coexistence should build on existing segregation methods/practices, and be science-based, cost-effective, proportionate, and avoid any unnecessary burden for farmers, seed producers, co-operatives and other actors associated with any production type.
The Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops (SCIMAC) has developed guidelines for management of herbicide tolerant GM crops. The experience of growers participating in the farm-scale evaluations indicates that the SCIMAC guidelines are a sound basis from which to develop protocols for coexistence in a commercial situation. Guidelines should be established on a crop-by-crop basis.
We believe that if GM crops are introduced then technical support should be made available to both GM and non-GM crop growers. We suggest this will be particularly important for those growers who are concerned about meeting non-GM purity standards. Technical support might include guidance about on-farm management, mechanisms to encourage co-operation between farmers on a voluntary basis, and training courses where appropriate. In particular, the industry should work together to develop workable protocols for coexistence in a commercial context. Guidance should be made available to all growers about each specific GM crop species introduced and the management measures that can be put in place on-farm to help safeguard the integrity of non-GM production.
We suggest that growers of non-GM crops could participate in such a scheme on a voluntary basis and compliance with protocols should be independently checked. There are already a number of industry schemes in place through which manufacturers source non-GM ingredients, based on the principle that the producer must demonstrate a management system is in place to preserve non-GM status during production.
3. Should coexistence protocols be designed to deliver a particular maximum level of admixture?
We feel it is sensible that coexistence measures be designed to deliver production within an agreed maximum level of admixture. We note the Commission’s recommendation that although the organic farming rules allow for the setting of a specific threshold for the unavoidable presence of GMOs, no threshold has been set and therefore that the general thresholds (established in the Regulation on GM Food and Feed) apply. This would not preclude individual organic certification bodies from setting more stringent thresholds.
4. Statutory limits to control the uptake of GM crops
We feel it is unfair and potentially arbitrary to impose statutory limits on the uptake of any new technology if it has been approved for commercial release. Any control system would be likely to be complex to establish and administer. While we recognise that gradual uptake could allow monitoring and protocols to be developed and refined over time, statutory limits distort the natural development of the market and are unfair to those farmers who are denied access.
5. Financial instruments to protect non-GM growers in the event of admixture.
There are a number of options, including:
a. Do nothing and let the non-GM grower bear any commercial loss. For example, the crop may no longer be accepted as organic by the certification body. The farmer may or may not find another certification body willing to accept the crop as organic (depending on the level of admixture and the farmer’s ability to prove GM presence is adventitious). If organic certification is lost the crop could potentially be sold into a conventional market (and may or may not be required to be labelled as containing GM). In this instance the farmer could be expected to lose any organic premium.
b. Non-GM grower sues for damages. This is most unsatisfactory and uncertain territory. Legal action is likely to be costly for an individual farmer to undertake and it is unclear if it could be successful, particularly if non-GM crops are regarded as ‘sensitive’ form of production. We are not aware of any legal precedent and would prefer the legal issues to be clarified before having to resort to the courts.
c. Compensation schemes - funded by the industry and/or Government. This option is problematic and raises questions such as who can claim, under what circumstances, will growers have to demonstrate they have complied with protocols before payment is made? We believe any levy on farmers and growers can only be justified if it directly benefits those businesses being levied and that the levy payers have a say in how the money is spent. A levy on all growers to compensate non-GM growers would only benefit a subset of those paying into the fund. A statutory levy would also take time to set up and potentially highly bureaucratic to administer. For these reasons we fundamentally oppose a levy.
d. Insurance. Of the possible financial instruments to compensate non-GM growers against economic loss due to admixture we would favour an insurance-based approach. In principle, first-party insurance against economic loss due to admixture is the most attractive insurance option. Insurers might be expected to offer lower premiums to non-GM growers who implement protocols to reduce the risk of their crop becoming contaminated. However, we recognise that most insurance companies would be reluctant to offer insurance in the early stages of introduction of GM crops due to the uncertainties in assessing the risk of admixture. We suggest in the medium to longer term following an introduction of GM crops much of this uncertainty may have been resolved, though insurers could be expected to make any decision to offer insurance based on their assessment of the commercial prospects for insurance products.
Appendix I - NFU GM coexistence study
Conducted by Greenacres Consultancy, summarised by Elizabeth Hogben
A snapshot of farming views on coexistence.
To explore farmers’ views on the potential for coexistence of GM varieties with other crops.
- 4 focus groups (between 4 and 9 participants in each)
- 4 crop areas (oilseed rape, sugar beet, fodder beet, forage maize)
Also attempted to consider specialised production areas (organic and certified seed)
Each meeting followed a similar format to help ensure results could be compared, including:
- ‘Brainstorming’ about most pressing issues relating to the likely effect of introduction of GM technology on their business.
- Establish context to discussion through questions to gauge current awareness of GM technology and explore sources of information and advice currently being used relating to agricultural research and GM technology.
- Guided discussion on the potential for co-existence of GM technology, including specific management measures, using open questions on the following topics:
- Monitoring and traceability
- Economic issues
- Management and technical issues
Summary of findings
Common themes across all focus group discussions included the following:
- All farmers gave strong support for crop-specific risk assessment and highlighted the need for appropriate safeguards before GM crops are permitted.
- Freedom of choice for farmers is important. It was noted that UK farmers could be at a disadvantage in the international trade of their produce if this technology is denied them. " If the product is already on the shelf then why should I be prevented from growing it?" There was a feeling that individual farmers in the UK should have free choice over whether to adopt this new technology or not. There was also the point that GM crop technology could be very useful in developing non-food crops such as better oils for fuel etc. and so to deny this option (based on concerns about application of the technology to food production) may restrict the industry’s competitiveness still further. However, there was also significant concern that GM crops being grown on a commercial scale may affect the ability of conventional and organic growers to produce certain crops or cause them to lose organic status in some cases.
- Coexistence is possible- Generally it was thought that if GM crops are introduced along with some system to facilitate coexistence this should not prevent organic farming in the UK
- Changing responsibilities – There was support for the principle that the responsibility for implementing management measures to help ensure coexistence should lie with the farmer who stands to gain. It was felt that in the short term this would be the GM crop grower. In the longer term, if there is a premium for non-GM crops then the farmer growing for this market could take on some responsibility, particularly if GM crops have become widely established.
- Demand for GM crops – It was generally felt that consumer attitudes and consumer confidence are paramount to whether farmers would choose to grow GM crops for food use. Food retailers and manufacturers were identified as important ‘translators’ of consumer demand.
- Non-GM premium - It was felt by some that there might be a competitive advantage if all or part of the UK remained a ‘GM-free zone’, but this would depend upon consumer demand. There were opposing views as to whether there was a sustainable marketing benefit to being non-GM across the whole UK. However, the viability of creating and enforcing ‘GM-free zones’ within the UK was questioned. These were thought to restrict the rights of farmers within the area to access new technology and be difficult to maintain due to the possibility of admixture (eg from seed spilt during transport across GM free zones).
- Uptake at an individual business level - Assuming a market exists for GM crops, it was generally felt that if GM crops are approved for commercial growing in the UK the rate of uptake of GM crops would depend upon cost of seed and perceived (and later any proven) economic advantage, including any cost savings in comparison with conventional practices. Some felt that GM technology could offer the farmer advantages (in terms of new products or access to new markets) relating to non-food crop production, fuels and possibly industrial and pharmaceutical applications. Some were concerned that the individual farmer might be left as an ‘apologist’ for the technology, having to justify their personal business decisions to the wider community.
Management and monitoring
- Seed survival and volunteers - There was some concern that a farmer considering conversion to organic or non-GM production in the future may have to face a longer conversion period if GM seeds survive in the soil for more than 2 years. The survival of herbicide tolerant volunteers in the rotation from the GM crop grown the previous year was highlighted as a concern but detailed discussions by the oilseed-specific group led to the conclusion that currently available chemicals would be adequate to deal with this problem. Landlord-tenant relationships and the impact of growing GM crops on the land’s value were discussed but this was not a spontaneous concern.
- Thresholds – There was a general recognition that thresholds are important and that these determine how strict management measures must be during production. Some farmers felt that some of the difficulties with achieving coexistence between GM and organic crops were due to high separation distances set by the organic certification bodies. There was some discussion of sampling and testing procedures to determine whether admixture has occurred.
- Guidance - There was strong support for some kind of advice, guidance or training to be provided to farmers to facilitate coexistence. One suggestion was a ‘driving licence’ for growers of GM crops.
- Independent monitoring – there needs to be a credible and independent body to monitor and check management measures are operating effectively.