Accidental GMO content permitted in organic food

The EU-27’s agriculture ministers have agreed to new organic food production and labelling standards from 2009, but green groups say that the rules are lax and will allow widespread contamination of organic products by genetically modified organisms.

Despite the opposition of Belgium, Greece, Italy and Hungary, the Council adopted, on 12 June 2007, a controversial regulation on organic production and labelling, which the Commission says will make life easier for both farmers and consumers by creating an EU organic logo for all products containing at least 95% organic ingredients. 

However, there are concerns that the new standards have been set too low because, although the text bans the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in organic food, it allows for products containing up to 0.9% of “adventitious or technically unavoidable” GMO content to be labelled and sold as organic. 

The European Parliament and environmental groups had called for this accidental contamination threshold to be set at 0.1% – the lowest level at which genetically modified organisms can be technically detected – saying that any threshold higher than this would make it too difficult for organic farmers to keep their crops free from “genetic pollution”. 

“The lax attitude towards contamination taken by the European Commission and some member states disregards the preferences of European consumers and may put the whole organic sector at risk. In practice, low levels of genetically modified material could start slipping into all organic food,” said Marco Contiero, policy officer at Greenpeace’s EU Unit.

However, Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said that the new regulation would “help consumers to recognise organic products throughout the EU more easily and give them assurances of precisely what they are buying”. 

The use of the new EU logo will be compulsory as of 1 January 2009, but national or private logos, often reflecting more stringent standards desired by some member states, will also be authorised. 

Green NGOs stress that the new standards do not lessen the necessity for stringent anti-contamination measures. Mauro Albrizio from the European Environmental Bureau said: “If the EU is committed to preserving and supporting the organic farming sector, then strict co-existence measures are a necessity, protecting conventional and organic farming from genetic contamination, with stiff penalties for GMO farmers and biotech companies if contamination does occur.” 

In 2008, the Commission will review national ‘co-existence’ rules aimed at containing commercially-grown GM crops, and further assess the need for an EU-wide law. 

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