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IFOAM and FiBL study: Socio-economic impacts of GMOs on European agriculture

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Editor: Karin Heinze

Authors of the study: FiBL (Bernadette Oehen, Sylvain Quiédeville, Matthias Stolz), IFOAM EU (Pauline Verrière), Universitat de Vic – Universitat Central de Catalunya (Rosa Binimeli)

A field of rape
Worldwide, GM crops such as oilseed rape correspond to 3.4% of the cultivated agricultural areas. (Photo © Pixabay)

IFOAM EU Group recently released a new study on the impacts of GMOs on European agriculture, in partnership with FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture). Because of the high risk of adventitious presence of GMOs at different steps of the production chain and the consequences, there is a huge effort and high expense for measures to avoid contamination. The study aims at identifying coexistence strategies of non-GM and organic supply chain actors to ensure GMO-free products and estimate the coexistence costs.

Background: Contamination cannot be excluded

IFOAM EU and FiBL have conducted the study in cooperation.

Genetically modified (GM) crops (e.g. maize, soybean, oilseed rape and cotton) have been produced commercially since 1996. Official statistics show that in 2016, 185 million hectares of GM crops were grown globally corresponding to 3.4% of the cultivated agricultural area (UAA) worldwide. Compared to Canada or the US, cultivation of GM crops in the EU agriculture is limited and decreased by 4.2% from 136,338 ha UAA in 2016 to 130,571 ha UAA in 2017. Indeed, GM crops are mainly grown in Spain and Portugal. But GMOs – mainly soy bean meal – are massively imported in the European Union, especially for animal feed.

The EU coexistence strategy seeks to ensure the choice of consumers and farmers between conventional, organic and GM crop production, the study notes. But in the same time adventitious presence of GM crops in non-GM crops cannot be excluded and there is even a high risk for contamination. Therefore, suitable measures are needed during cultivation, harvest, transport, storage and processing to ensure coexistence as well as means to keep GMOs out of the production chain.

High risks and unacceptable costs for the organic sector

The study concludes that coexistence in breeding and seed production is unfeasible. The highest costs related to coexistence are testing and certification costs. Moreover, the study brings to light the unbearable situation of the organic sector when risks of contamination are too high: Operators are obliged to adapt the production or to abandon certain types of productions. Such a situation is unacceptable: The organic sector should not bear the costs related to biotechnologies and should be free to produce without GMOs. Therefore, IFOAM EU will continue its advocacy work to raise that concern towards European policy-makers. The study focusses on four different production chains in five different countries (France (6), Germany, (6), Spain (2), Switzerland (2) and India (1)) and was conducted based on interviews with 17 company representatives from organic and non-organic GMO-free supply chains (seed companies, breeders, feed processors, soy food processors, cotton processors and traders).

Soy beans in a bag and outside of a bag
GMOs like soy bean meal are being imported in the EU. Photo © Pixabay

The aim of the study is to identify strategies and the corresponding costs of European non-GM and organic supply chain actors to ensure GMO-free commodities and seeds as a consequence of GM crop production in Europe and imports from third countries, as the conductor’s of the study explain. Information received from the interviews was rather qualitative as it is not always possible to quantify and allocate specific costs linked to GMOs: Some strategies are indeed developed to meet different criteria (avoid contamination by pesticides and GMOs). This research was part of IFOAM EU’s ‘Keeping GMOs out of food’ project.

Results from the interviews

As mentioned above, especially the coexistence in breeding and seed production is considered to be unfeasible. A potential GM-contamination case is a tremendous risk to the companies as losing a line means that long-term investment in the breeding for organic agriculture and the profits from the corresponding business are lost. As official testing is perceived to be insufficient by the interviewed companies, additional testing is implemented. The situation is easier in countries with a national GMO ban, because the risk of contamination after import is limited.

A field of maize
Spanish farmers rejected to grow organic maize because of the high risk of contamination by drift from GMOs. Photo © Pixabay

For organic and non-organic GMO-free feed producers, the most important coexistence costs are testing and certification costs. In Spain, due to the high risk of contamination with GMOs, farmers abandoned growing organic maize and thus lost a potential income opportunity. Feed processors fear that a contamination case results in quite relevant costs. The most important avoidance strategies implemented are to source commodities from well-known suppliers or safe origins and operating only organic feed or spatial segregation in specific plants.

The soy food processing companies interviewed, highlighted that costs of coexistence are mainly due to product testing, careful cleaning at every processing stage and certification. Similar to the feed processors, soy food processors also minimise the risk of contamination with GMOs by sourcing organic or non-organic GMO-free soya from well-known suppliers or safe origins.

Euro bank notes
The coexistence of GM- and non-GM crops results in high costs for GMO-free food producers. Photo © Pixabay

Most of the coexistence costs for the cotton supply chain incur in the production country and during the first stages of cotton processing (delivery and ginning). The most relevant measures to avoid GMO contaminations are access to non-GM seeds, the rejection of contaminated batches and cleaning before each lot is processed.

New GM techniques pose a massive problem for non-GM processors in the food producing industry.

Since the first authorisations of GMOs and first contamination cases, companies seem to have adapted their strategies and to have learnt from past experiences and past contamination cases across Europe. Important strategies adopted by the interviewed companies consist in producing only Identity Preserved (IP) certified products, or in having totally segregated plants.

This suggests that banning the cultivation of GM crops is an efficient strategy and a pre-requisite to maintain coexistence costs to a manageable level. The companies interviewed fear that problems related to GMOs and coexistence costs might increase in the future if the area under GM production grows worldwide.

New genetic engineering techniques are also a growing concern amongst seed companies, and organic and conventional non-GM processors. To allow the GMO-free sector to be able to remain GMO-free, these new techniques need to be regulated within the scope of the GMO legislation and mandatory traceability and labelling is required.

Regulatory framework is needed to develop competitive non-GM businesses

The study showed that coexistence affects the organic and conventional GMO-free sectors in terms of additional costs and in managing insecurity or the permanent prevailing risk of a contamination case respectively. European non-GM operators are forced to find solutions to minimise this risk by additional testing, limiting sourcing to GMO-free countries and specific suppliers or by even abandoning commodities. Thus, GMO-free business face constraints and lose options for their business.

EU flags
In line with rising consumption of organic products, the EU should work on a regulatory framework allowing the development of competitive GMO-free businesses. Photo © Pixabay

Following the polluter-pays principle, the costs of coexistence should be born by the companies that place GMOs on the market, and not by the organic and GMO-free sectors. On the other hand, there is an increasing demand for GMO-free seeds, feed and food and thus, providing GMO-free products is also a business opportunity for European seed companies, farmers and processors. The adoption of efficient coexistence measures by Member States should be made mandatory at European level and mechanisms to compensate all disadvantages caused by contamination should be established. The unprecedented development of organic agriculture in the European Union is a clear message from European citizens in favour of a more sustainable agriculture, without GMOs. The Commission and the EU Member States should thus provide the regulatory framework that allows developing competitive non-GM businesses.

In order to read the whole study and to get further information please visit the IFOAM EU or the FiBL website.




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