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GM seed contamination in EU spreads

"The survey found that seed producers were able to declare as GM-free only
14% of corn and 6% of soybean seeds sold in Italy..... Moreover, on July 23,
2001, a metastudy by the French food safety agency found that 7-41% of
conventional lots of corn in 2001 contained GM seeds...."

Nature Biotechnology
April 2002 Volume 20 Number 4 pp 324 - 325

European Union in disarray over GM seeds
Anna Meldolesi, Rome


The European Union could be facing another chaotic season involving disputes
over the adventitious presence of GM seeds in batches of conventional seeds
to be sown. While the European Commission waits for member states to agree
on revisions to the seed directives setting clear rules on the matter,
European countries are free to adopt their own approaches to imported seed
lots, creating havoc for exporters, seed companies, and farmers.

While the EC waits for member states to agree on revisions to the seed
directives, European countries are free to adopt their own approaches to
imported seeds containing traces of GMOs.

The EU depends heavily on seed imports-70,000 tons of corn (21% of its
needs), 15,000 tons of soy (68%), 4,000 tons of oilseed rape (20%), and
7,000 tons of cotton (58%) were imported in 2000. Having acknowledged that
absolute segregation of types of seed is technically impossible, the EC is
looking to revise current seed marketing directives, which were established
before GM content became a commercial issue.

The Commission has been trying to determine acceptable levels of GM seeds in
batches of conventional seed since the spring of 2000, when many European
countries discovered small amounts of GM seeds in conventional cotton,
oilseed rape, and soybean seeds imported from the US and Canada. The
resulting environmental protests, seed destruction, and re-exportation or
exclusion of seeds from food use prompted most European countries to agree
to an "Interim Action" proposed by the EU Scientific Committee on Plants to
accept a 0.5% threshold and try to coordinate monitoring and testing of seed
batches until the seed directives could be modified.

The EC recently revised this level, taking into account possible sources of
mixing, such as cross-pollination, volunteers (crops that persist without
deliberate cultivation), harvesting, transport, and storage-some of which
differ according to the crop. For example, in the case of maize, volunteers
rarely cause a major problem and control of cross-pollination is more
important; and for vegetative crops, such as potato, volunteers are likely
to be the major source of transgenes in food-chain materials. As a result,
the EC has set a 0.3% tolerance for swede rape and cotton, 0.5% for tomato,
beet, chicory, maize, and potato, and 0.7% for soy; batches containing
higher percentages of GM seed must be labeled as exceeding the threshold.
(These figures have been calculated exactly to meet the 1% threshold
established for food and food ingredients under Regulation 49/2000, to
ensure that the final products derived from the harvest will not require
labeling.)

The EU Standing Committee on Agricultural, Horticultural and Forestry Seeds
and Plants (comprising agricultural representatives of EU member states)
discussed these proposals on February 28. One of the biggest concerns is the
fate of seed batches exceeding these thresholds. Several countries say it is
not enough to simply label them as containing GM seed. They want an upper
threshold set, above which seeds cannot be sold commercially. The problem
lies with crops like corn, beet, and cotton that have no precise varietal
purity requirements for commercialization. In the case of soy, for example,
a seed batch must comprise at least 99% of a specific variety in order to be
certified; thus if the GM content exceeds 0.7%, then the batch must be
labeled (according to adventitious presence rules), but if the GM content
exceeds 1%, the batch cannot be sold (according to variety rules). A corn
batch containing 10% GM seeds, however, must be labeled as exceeding the
0.5% GM threshold, but could nonetheless be sold.

Until EU countries reach agreement, they are left to apply the Interim
Action at their discretion. Germany, for instance, has rejected it, and
tolerance levels for GM seeds now differ from state to state, whereas France
has started a self-control system involving an agreement between all links
in the chain to "minimize" mixing. Some countries even insist on a zero
tolerance policy. Austria, for example, passed a law in January 2002 setting
a threshold of 0.1% (effectively zero, as it is the limit of current
detection methods), and apparently relies on self-certification from seed
producers. Although it could be possible for a country as small as Austria
to find enough GM-free seeds for its needs, it is impossible for larger
countries.

A case in point is Italy, which insists on an unworkable zero tolerance
policy despite the implications for its farming and food industries. In
2001, then Italian agricultural minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio raised the
zero tolerance flag, prompting environmental campaigns against imported
conventional corn and soybeans (Nat. Biotechnol. 19, 603, 2001). On December
28, 2001, Italy's new agricultural minister Gianni Alemanno, before setting
an official threshold, commissioned the National Agency for Selected Seeds
(overseen by the ministry of agriculture) to assess the availability of
GM-free seeds on the market. The survey found that seed producers were able
to declare as GM-free only 14% of corn and 6% of soybean seeds sold in
Italy-not enough for Italian farmers' needs. ("GM-free" was not clearly
defined in this study.) Despite these findings, Alemanno has verbally
confirmed the zero tolerance threshold but has not actually set it by
decree. As a result, monitoring and testing of seed lots is not
standardized. The situation is further complicated by the August 2000 decree
of the Italian government banning commercialization of products derived from
the four most widespread GM corn varieties (Nat. Biotechnol. 18, 1137,
2000).

Moreover, on July 23, 2001, a metastudy by the French food safety agency
found that 7-41% of conventional lots of corn in 2001 contained GM seeds,
even though the levels in individual samples were significantly lower than
in 2000 thanks to the self-control system. (France is the biggest seed
producer in the EU, exporting mainly to Germany, Italy, Belgium, and
Holland.) "Based on the French data, we can expect adventitious presence of
such GM corns in many lots sowed in Italy," says Norberto Pogna, director of
genetics at the Experimental Institute for Cereal Research in Rome, "but if
we should take literally the zero tolerance claim and the August 2000
decree, we would end up preventing the Italian food industry from using the
national harvest."

The Standing Committee is expected to prepare a revised text on which to
vote. But negotiations could take several months, blocking the EC's plan to
have the new rules enforced by the end of the year.


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