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Contamination Matters – Why GM Crops Can’T Be Managed at a National Level

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Genetic Engineering page, Millions Against Monsanto page and our Organic Transitions page.

The European Union is considering a hugely significant change to the way genetically modified (GM) crops are authorised. Proposals for "national opt-outs" appear to allow individual countries to make their own decisions about whether or not to grow GM, but past experience shows that the risk of cross-border contamination is likely to make a nonsense of national bans.

Particularly in the European context of small fields in relatively small countries and the reliance on road and rail transport, contamination, including across national borders, is a real and serious threat that will grow with every new crop approved for cultivation. This means that countries supporting the proposal because they wish to ban GM crops in their own territory cannot be assured that pro-GM neighbours will not disrupt their farming or trade. Furthermore farmers, food producers and exporters are not protected from the costs of these disruptions, nor is the environment protected from the impacts of GM contamination. Without a liability regime in place the decision is being made out of proper sequence, and the risks are high.

This briefing reminds decision makers that GM contamination happens, and it does damage on farms and in international trade. As the source or cause of GM contamination is often never found, or is suspected to be due to natural forces outside human control, farmers, processors, exporters and others are left to fend for themselves in seeking redress for harm caused by products they do not wish to use and actively avoid.

GM contamination matters, and those wishing to exercise their right to grow, sell and eat non-GM crops need protection from this known risk. If those promoting and profiting from GM crops stand by the safety of those products, they have nothing to fear from liability.

The following examples demonstrate how difficult it is to ensure that GMOs are contained while also highlighting the serious economic impact of international GM contamination incidents. Without a clear liability regime in place the so-called "opt out" proposal puts businesses in our food system at risk of a potentially sharp increase in GM contamination costs while also failing to place responsibility for environmental cleanup where it belongs.  

Example 1 - US rice

Between 1998 and 2001 Aventis (acquired by Bayer CropScience in 2002) grew experimental GM rice variety LL601 on test sites in the US. Development was halted after those trials.(1)

In July 2006 Bayer notified the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that the company detected contamination of commercial rice supplies as early as January that year.(2) EU authorities were informed of the problem in August 2006.(3)

In November 2006, at the request of Bayer, the USDA deregulated (ie, commercialised) LL601, giving it regulatory approval in an attempt to calm market fears.(4)

However LL601 was not approved for commercial cultivation or import anywhere else in the world. The contamination announcements triggered Emergency Measures in Japan, the Philippines and South Korea introducing strict testing requirements (resulting in the rejection of US rice imports).

Russia and Bulgaria banned US rice outright.(5) In the EU the Commission issued Emergency Measures on 23 August 2006.(6) UK authorities dragged their feet implementing emergency testing measures, which lead to legal action.(7)

Efforts to find and isolate contaminated rice stocks were hampered by Bayer's refusal to send reference material to more than a handful of labs. By then the GM rice was found in 24 countries, suggesting that US rice supplies had suffered years of undetected contamination by an experimental GMO without any commercial approval.(8) The US rice industry estimated some 41% of its market was affected and proposed measures to try to rid US rice supplies of the GM trait.(9)

To make matters worse in early 2007 Bayer announced that a second experimental GM rice (LL62) was also contaminating supplies, found in US plantings estimated to date back to 2004.(10) Testing labs found a third unidentified LL GM contamination that must have come from one of Bayer's other experimental lines abandoned at least a decade earlier.(11)  
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