European farmers, consumers, environmentalists push politicians on GM seed contamination

By Robert Schubert, CropChoice editor

OCT. 14, 2002, CropChoice News: More than 300 European farmer, environmental and consumer organizations, representing millions of people, took their concerns about genetically contaminated seed to Luxembourg today, where European Union agriculture ministers were meeting for more discussions about proposed legislation on the labeling and traceability of genetically engineered foods. Environment ministers will take up the issue on Thursday, October 17.

The Save Our Seeds initiative delivered a petition to Franz Fischler, agriculture commissioner, and to David Byrne, who oversees consumer protection. It calls for changes in the proposed Seed Directive, which, as currently written, would permit organic and conventional seed to contain more genetically modified content without being labeled as transgenic than is now the case. The current proposal would allow the following PCR genetic testing thresholds on seed:

  • up to 0.3 percent for oilseed rape;
  • 0.5 percent for corn, beet, potato, tomato and cotton;
  • and 0.7 percent for soybeans.

Unless the draft Directive is changed to today's standard, 0.1 percent for all seed, farmers could unwittingly grow millions of corn and oilseed rape plants with transgenic characteristics, according to Save Our Seeds. Those would then cross-pollinate with other conventional and organic varieties, thus spreading contamination throughout European fields and into the food supply.

That would make a mockery of the European Parliament's draft legislation mandating a label on any food if genetically modified organisms compose more than 0.5 percent of its ingredients, says Benedikt Haerlin, director of the Save Our Seeds initiative.

Luxembourg dairy farmer Aloyse Marx agrees.

"Consumers in Europe want no GMOs (genetically modified organisms), so farmers have to do their part to ensure that the food contains none of it," says Marx, whose 40 cows, raised on corn, grass and wheat, produce about 84,000 gallons of milk per year. "If the seeds we buy contain GMOs, we can't give consumers that security."

Marx also favors changing the Seed Directive language so that the current 0.1 percent standard (technical zero, the detection limit for PCR testing) becomes law. Companies have been meeting this threshold for the past four years, during which time the EU has a maintained a moratorium on any new bioengineered foods.

It's been more than just common in Austria. Technical zero on seed contamination has been the law there since the beginning of this year, and seed giant Pioneer Hi-Bred has been complying with it. The manager of Pioneer's Austrian unit wrote in a March 2002 letter to the Voralberg state government that the company tests all of its corn seed batches for contamination and certifies the negative results.

But it's all a question of scale, says a spokesman for Pioneer in Brussels. To meet that standard for corn on no more than 250,000 acres in Austria is one thing, but to duplicate that across the continent would be nearly impossible.

Not according to data from Save Our Seeds. Oilseed rape is grown on more than 7 million acres and corn on more than 11 million acres of EU ground.

But such success will end unless the 0.1 percent threshold is codified. The "EU Commission would give the genetic engineering companies a license to contaminate European agriculture even as this industry has failed miserably to convince anybody about their products," says Haerlin of Save Our Seeds (http://www.saveourseeds.org). "This is a slap in the face of the seventy percent of European consumers and similar majority of farmers who reject GMOs in their food and in their seeds. It would cost farmers, food processors and retailers millions of Euro just to serve the interests of a few transnational [biotech] companies."

If the responsibility for testing seed were shifted to farmers, dairyman Marx says he would have to pay the equivalent of about $1,000 per batch of seed. "It's expensive and it would not be advantageous to me."

In the United States, organic grower David Vetter urges the European politicians to maintain the allowable limits for transgenic contamination of seed as low as possible. For him, the main issue is farmers being able to keep control over their seed stocks.

"If you raise the tolerances, you open the door to progressively higher levels of contamination," Vetter says. "This could shift more liability to farmers because they would have to test for it. Biotech companies would have more control because they have patent rights on the transgenic seed."

Haerlin says that Commissioner Fischler was receptive to the seed petition: "He said he wants to discuss this with the Parliament and that contamination with GMOs was a real problem for small farmers."

No spokespeople from the offices of Fischler or Byrne, or from Monsanto could be reached for comment.