European Commission proposals to allow organic food to contain up to 0.9 per cent genetically modified material have been met with consternation by organic producers and advocates alike. The thorny question at the heart of the debate is whether the ‘contamination’ of crops by GM material can, and should, be prevented. Chris Jones reports from Brussels.

On 21 December 2005, the European Commission unveiled plans to update the rules on organic food production in order to “improve clarity for consumers and farmers”. But the proposals, which are meant to clarify and simplify the rules governing organic production, have had organic producers up in arms following the decision to increase the GM contamination threshold from 0.1% to 0.9%, in line with labelling legislation.

“Organic producers are totally opposed to any contamination by genetically modified organisms, no matter how small,” Marco Schlüter of IFOAM, the international organic producers’ association, told just-food. “The Commission’s proposals are misleading as they suggest the routine contamination of organic products with GMOs would be allowed.”

Schlüter suggests that the desire to harmonise labelling thresholds for GM products is the main reason for the confusion. “The Commission wants to bring organic food into line with existing GM legislation, which allows up to 0.9% GM content to go unlabelled. There is an undeniable logic to this, but it is flawed. Organic consumers simply will not accept any GM content, no matter how much is technically permitted by law, so it is market forces that drive the organic food sector, not the labelling regulations.”

In order to win organic certification from national bodies such as the UK’s Soil Association – there is currently no EU-wide certification scheme – farmers must guarantee that their produce is 100% GM-free. Any contamination by GM material, let alone up to 0.9%, as would theoretically be permitted by the Commission’s proposal, is considered highly damaging to the reputation of organic farmers, whose high production costs are offset by a high price and a premium quality image.

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The Commission’s proposal is not advocating the introduction of looser national certification criteria – the zero tolerance stance remains unchanged. But it does imply that contamination cannot be avoided, and it is this assumption that has particularly angered organic producers.

“We have been calling for years for EU regulations aimed at stopping contamination of conventional and organic crops by GM material,” Helen Holder, GMO campaign coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe, told just-food. “The Commission and the member states are finally going to debate the issue in April.”

For Holder, the coexistence issue is not about managing GM contamination but rather avoiding it altogether. “We need EU-wide measures to stop contamination. We have national measures at the moment, but these differ from country to country, and even from region to region.”

“By proposing this 0.9% threshold, simply to bring organic food labelling into line with that of other food, the Commission continues to send out the wrong signal – that contamination is inevitable.”

But although the Commission’s report on coexistence is not due until March, just a few weeks before the April conference in Austria, the EU executive appears to be prejudging the issue.

“We live in the real world,” a spokesman for farm commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told just-food. “We need to recognise that farmers grow a variety of crops throughout the EU and that it would be wrong to penalise anyone for unavoidable ‘contamination’.”

But this is precisely what organic producers would like to see. “We want a system that compensates organic farmers when their crops are contaminated,” said Holder. “And it should be the big biotech companies that are held to account – not EU tax payers or other farmers.”

Schlüter agreed. “The EU has a duty to ensure those farmers, both organic and non-organic, who wish to remain GMO-free are properly protected in the event of contamination.”

If and when an EU-wide system of compensation were introduced for farmers whose crops had become ‘contaminated’ by GMOs, a threshold of 0.9% would obviously reduce the potential number of claims.

But for now the debate remains largely theoretical, with only a handful of member states allowing GM crops to be grown, including Spain, France and Germany. In contrast, some 5.7 million hectares of EU farmland is dedicated to organic production, according to the Commission’s own figures, with Italy alone accounting for around one fifth.