Taking the GMO risk out of Europe’s food production

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

This article is part of our special report Risk vs. hazard in policymaking.

The EU’s post-2013 Common Agricultural Policy and EU other legislation must guarantee that organic and conventional farmers and food producers are no longer threatened by the risk of GMO contamination, argues Antje Kölling.

Antje Kölling is the policy manager IFOAM EU Group, an umbrella organisation for the organic foods movement.

Recent media reports of Monsanto backing away from GMO crops in Europe offered a glimmer of hope for a GMO-free Europe, following international mass mobilisation of farmers and citizens in the "March against Monsanto" on the 25 May.

Alas, any signs of that GMO-free marchers could crack open the Champagne and return peacefully to their homes and fields were simply not true. Monsanto will continue to promote and sell GMO seed in countries where they secure political support. Business as usual will carry on. The fight for the right of farmers and citizens to choose the food and farming approaches they want continues.

Monsanto stands as a prime example of handful of multinational chemical and seed companies which, despite the fact that a large majority of consumers reject GMOs in food (see e.g. Eurobarometer 354 on food-related risks), remain resolute in trying to push GMO crops onto the European market. Although products containing GMO crops are not listed by supermarkets in the EU, for the good reason that consumers would not buy them, GMO-company interests are keeping European farmers, consumers and politicians on their toes since more than 25 years.

While only one GMO crop (Monsanto maize MON810) is grown on a commercial scale in a few EU member states at the moment, the list of applications for EU approval contains 11 GMOs for cultivation and 46 GMOs for import into the EU as feed and food. With any extension of GMO cultivation in Europe, the risk of contamination for GMO-free food would increase. Costs for the prevention of GMO contamination and analyses to exclude GMO traces in food already cause significant financial burden for food producers today and threaten to rise.

The use of GMO crops stands in stark contrast to agro-ecological farming methods that are the foundation of organic farming. Organic farmers have been frontrunners in developing strategies for sustainable farming and the use of locally adapted seed varieties. With 10.6 million hectares of EU farmland under organic rules, organic farming is of significantly greater economic importance for the EU farm sector than GMO cultivation. Moreover, organic food remains a growing market with 9% annual growth in 2011 despite the financial crisis and many citizens support the idea of farming that is closer to nature. Next to the large majority of their conventional colleagues, organic farmers rely on conditions where they can produce GMO-free food at reasonable costs.

GMOs and synthetic pesticides are part of the same business model. Monsanto is marketing "Roundup-ready" herbicide-resistant plants as a GMO-pesticide package that obliges farmers to use its seed and pesticide products in together. However, both are quick-fix technological solutions to complex agronomic problems and both bear high risks for farmers’ livelihoods, environment and society. Instead, clear political signals are needed to promote sustainable alternatives and to boost innovation in holistic agronomic approaches to solve pressing challenges.

EU leaders still have the opportunity to reach a greening of the CAP post-2013. In the final weeks of the EU institution trilogue negotiations on CAP as well as in the implementation phase in the member states, efforts must be done to save what remains from the greening of this CAP reform. Crop rotation must return to the mainstream as an agronomic best practice to reduce chemical inputs. Pesticide-free ecological focus areas must be established to raise biodiversity and become a learning field for conventional farmers to make use of ecological cycles and functional biodiversity. Rural development programmes must be used to further promote organic farming – through support for organic conversion and maintenance, but also promotion for organic products, organic training and advisory for farmers, and a sustainability check for all investment support. The new European Innovation Partnership must be used to stimulate agro-ecological innovation throughout the food chain.

Keeping food free from GM organisms is a pre-condition for marketing high-quality food. This concerns not only organic but also conventional products. European farmers, the whole food sector and rural economies gain sufficient income only if they can market quality produce at an affordable price.

Therefore, EU policy frameworks must be amended to finally guarantee that organic and conventional farmers and food producers are no longer threatened by GMO contamination. Legislation must ensure that the costs for preventing contamination, testing and damage control must be carried by the companies that bring GMO on the market. We need society-centred policies concerning GMO cultivation in Europe – the right of consumers and the broad majority of food producers to ensure high quality, affordable food must stand higher than the narrow business interest of a few companies.

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