Sharing the land: If, GM, conventional and organic crops are going to live harmoniously together regulations need to be established now

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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Posted June 3, 2003: Can genetically modified crops (GM crops), conventional crops and organic crops co-exist on our farms? With difficulty.

The growing presence of GM crops on our farms has added urgency to the need for dialogue about the long-term co-existence of different food production systems. As genetically modified food co-mingles throughout the food chain, the freedom to choose participation in unique food production will either be challenged in the courts or become physically impossible.

The European Commission has researched scenarios for co-existence: in April it held a roundtable for stakeholders. Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Initiative for Future Agriculture Food Systems sponsored an event on strategies for co-existence.

The underlying issue is freedom of choice. Will consumers and farmers be able to choose what they grow and eat - conventional, organic or genetically modified?

Agriculture is a biological process, much of it happens in wide, open spaces. In spite of adherence to prevention protocols and best practices, on-farm co-mingling is almost inevitable. Consider these causes: seed impurities, cross-pollination, volunteer plants from previous crops, harvesting practices and storage systems.

Much of the debate around the rising variety of food systems is focused on health, safety and environmental issues. Co-existence is not about the merits - or ills - of a particular farming system. It is the practical question of how we share biological resources. Co-mingling has economic consequences. Conventional and organic farmers have to sell their crops at cheaper prices if genetically modified seeds get into their fields. When genetically modified crops show up in unexpected places, the whole food chain is affected - think StarLink corn.

The issues around co-existence are not new to agriculture. Protocols and strategies for seed production, identity preserved crops and specialty crops are well known. Consider buffer zones, pollen barriers, crop rotation, control of volunteers, isolation distances, timing the flowering of crops to different periods, separated storage facilities....

But the issues have become urgent. Genetically modified wheat will be a marketing risk and a legal issue, if co-mingling is not managed from day one of its approval for our fields.

Genetically modified crops require built-in safeguards, like eliminating modified gene expression in pollen, making pollen drift irrelevant or making a quick test for the modified gene a necessary part of approvals. Governments must recognize co-mingling as an insured peril in crop insurance programs and define what it means for crops from one food system to trespass into the fields of another. Divergent food systems need to revisit their level of tolerance for each other.

Co-existence is a challenge in urgent need of a focused dialogue in Canada.


Details of the European Union's Round Table on research results relating to co-existence of GM and non-GM crops can be found at www.europa.eu.int/comm

A summary of the event on Strategies for Coexistence of GMO, Non-GMO, and Organic Crop Production sponsored by the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems (IFAFS) program of the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, can be found at www.biotech.iastate.edu/IFAFS/coexistence.html#OVERVIEW.


Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.