EU split over labeling of GMO contaminated organic food
By Julia Crosfield

European agricultural ministers were divided over appropriate labeling for organic foods contaminated by GMOs. During a meeting in Brussels on May 22, some countries requested stricter labeling rules for contaminated organic products. However, both organic and conventional farmers want priority given to contamination prevention measures.

“It is a distraction strategy to suddenly only single out organic,” says Benedikt Haerlin, Director of Foundation on Future Farming. “All farmers should have the right not to be contaminated,” he adds.

Biotech-wary countries—including Belgium, Austria, Italy and Greece—told the Brussels meeting they want close to zero tolerance of transgenic content in food labeled organic. However, Commissioner Fischer Boel said forcing the limit lower for organics would cost farmers too much and would harm the sale of organic goods.

Current European legislation allows organic and conventional products to contain up to 0.9 percent GMO content, before labeling is required, as long as the modified content is accidental or technically unavoidable. Haerlin says this threshold could be even lower. He says stringent measures to prevent contamination of fields and conventional seeds are vital.

According to Haerlin, farmers don’t have to accept a 0.9% level of contamination from their neighbors. He explains that the purpose of having a threshold above zero is only to allow for accidental and technically unavoidable GMO pollution, not to create an “acceptable” level of contamination.

European organic certification organizations actually operate a 0.1% threshold of GMO contamination (the lowest detectable level). However, the largest UK organic certification body, the Soil Association, is unwilling for the legal labeling level to be set lower than 0.9% without an EU wide compulsory coexistence regime and a liability framework.

“What we want are strict regimes to ensure that organic crops are not contaminated by more than 0.1%,” says Gundula Azeez, policy manager from the Soil Association. She likens the contamination debate to smoking and says that passive smoking is prevented by controlling the smoker.

“All GM farmers should be subject to rules,” Azeez says and, “if an organic producer loses certification or market contract as a result of contamination then we need a system where all liable neighbors divide up compensation.”

The meeting of agriculture ministers concluded that the Commission will examine whether additional coexistence rules from Brussels are appropriate. By the end of June it should have evaluated studies on different liability regimes and guidelines on segregation of conventional and GM crops.

In addition, Stavros Dimas, the environment commissioner, is to submit a proposal for a GM threshold for conventional seeds. Austria’s agriculture minister, Josef Proll, the current president of the EU agriculture council, told the meeting the threshold for seeds should be kept as low as possible.

Azeez says the whole market needs access to GM-free seeds and the GMO contamination threshold for seeds should be 0.1%. “Seeds are the foundation of everything.” She adds, “Countries discussing labeling have the wrong end of the stick.”
© Copyright 2006. The Organic & Non-GMO Report (July 2006).