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Organic Consumers Association

GMOs Threaten Organic Standards

EU Agricultural Ministers have decided to allow organic food accidentally contaminated with genetically modified organisms to be classified as organic as long as the GMO presence is less than 0.9%. Furthermore, consumers would not be notified of any GM presence below this 0.9 per cent threshold.

Under current European GM labelling rules, any GM content of non-organic food must be labelled unless it is below 0.9 per cent and is "adventitious or technically unavoidable", i.e. accidental. Now the same rules will apply to organic food. Current organic standards in the UK set by the Soil Association and other certifiers prohibit any GM content in organic food.

The European Commission's defence of the 0.9% level is that any lower would "effectively wipeout" the organic sector by making it too expensive for organic farmers to keep contamination below this level. The real reason according to Jonathan Mathews of GMwatch.org is "bureaucratic convenience, it suits their ideas about co-existence of GM crops alongside non-GMO crops, the threshold they have set for conventional farming is 0.9%, they don't want organic farmers popping up with a much lower tolerance of GMO contamination."

Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association, told naturalchoices, "Organic farmers and producers must aim for zero GMO contamination, they must have the processes and procedures in place to protect the purity of organic produce. Any contamination over 0.1% should be clearly labeled."

"This does not pave the way for GM crops in the UK for the simple reason that UK consumers don't want to buy GM products," he added.

The Conservative Party has supported labeling on any contamination over 0.1%, including for animal feed.

The Soil Association, Organic Farmers and Growers, the Food and Drink Federation, and 75 of the largest organic companies in the UK are meeting with David Miliband, Secretary for the Environment next week to push for tighter rules on co-existance, the rules that determine how organic, conventional and GMO crops are separated. "In most European countries this process is open and transparent, with clear marking of GM crops with the GM industry being held responsible for any infraction, in the UK we seem to be heading in the opposite direction with the organic consumer bearing the price," says Peter Melchett.

Environmental groups have hit out at the decision for going against the principle of consumer choice. Friends of the Earth said, "Organic farming is the most competitive and environmentally friendly agricultural sector and in Europe it is creating new jobs and has wide public support."

According to Gavin Rothwell of the research company IGD organic food sales in the UK are set to increase by 50% in the next four years reaching annual sales of GBP2,400 million by 2011. Organic food is one of the fastest growing sectors of the retail market.

In 2005, the organic sector made up 3.9% of the farmed land in the EU25. The highest proportions of organic area were in Austria (11.0%), Italy (8.4%), the Czech Republic and Greece (both 7.2%) and the lowest in Malta (0.1%), Poland (0.6%) and Ireland (0.8%). The organic sector has doubled from 1.8% in 1998 to 4.1% in 2005.

European consumers have repeatedly expressed strong misgivings about GMO food, at a public hearing last October held by the Agricultural Committee of the European Parliament, Dr Ewen Mullins from the Irish Crops Research Institute said that "the majority of consumers have a hard time seeing any clear benefits associated with genetically engineered crops".

Friends of the Earth's GM Campaigner Clare Oxborrow said: "EU Ministers have put the interest on the biotech industry ahead of consumers who believe that organic food should be produced to strict environmental standards. Organic farmers will now find it increasingly difficult to protect their crops from GM. This vote must not be used as a green light to allow routine GM contamination. The EU and UK must now introduce tough legislation to protect organic and conventional farmers from genetic pollution." The European Parliament and environmental groups had called for the threshold of contamination of organic food to be 0.1 %, which is the current accepted limit of detection for genetically modified organisms.

Caroline Lucas, Green MEP for South East Region of England, told naturalchoices, "We are very, very critical of this decision, the threshold should be the lowest possible, as new testing technologies are developed that can test at lower levels of GMO contamination, the threshold should be lowered still. This decision throws into doubt the long-term viability of both organic and conventional GMO free farming in the UK and across Europe, just at a time when its popularity amongst consumers is skyrocketing, We in the European Greens are determined to fight this decision and protect the future of environmentally sustainable organic and conventional farming."

This decision effectively pushes the responsibility for GMO contamination away from the biotech industry and onto those organic farmers who do not accept a threshold as high as 0.9%. In a perverse attempt to lower costs for organic farmers they have potentially made it more difficult for organic farmers who want to maintain higher standards.

The basis for organic food is that it inspires consumer confidence, not just that the food is free from the heavy chemicals used in intensive conventional farming but also that it is free from the tinkering of the biotechnology industry. There is a saying that "certification means simplification," and certainly this is the approach of the European Commission as it tries to seek the lowest common denominator for organic labeling.  The Soil Association on the other hand have worked for over 60 years to build up consumer confidence in their organic labelling, they have done this by maintaining the highest practical standards. If the EU tries to undermine the standards of organic by placing the interests of the biotech industry in front of those of the consumer, the responsibility falls on the certifying organizations, principally the Soil Association, to continue to push for the lowest level detectable, at the moment that is 0.1% but with new technology it could go even lower.

Of course, the best way to avoid GMO contamination of both organic and conventional farming is to not allow GM crops in the first place.

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