Skip to content

Scientific Alliance response to Defra coexistence consultation, 2006

Scientific Allianceresponse to Defra coexistence consultation

P14 Do stakeholders have any comments on the proposed scope of the coexistence regime?

The proposed scope is as expected. However, it should be noted in particular that coexistence is not simply a case of keeping levels of GM admixture in non-GM crops below the statutory limit. Coexistence of different crops within and between farms is a general issue that all farmers have to consider on a daily basis. There are also well-proven instances of long-term coexistence, such as High Erucic Acid Rape and food-grade oilseed rape, or the growing of high-purity certified seed. GM crops introduce no new issues.

Good neighbourliness dictates that no farmer will knowingly compromise the quality of an adjacent crop by means of anything he may plant or any treatment he may undertake. This should be an entirely level playing field, and regulations should be drawn up which take account of the future growers of premium-priced GM varieties, as much as today’s organic and “conventional” growers. There is a legislative distinction between GM and non-GM crops, and this must be catered for, but there should be no in-built bias towards any one type of agriculture. All farmers have a mutual right to grow crops as they wish without any negative influence from neighbouring farms.

P20 Do stakeholders accept the above analysis of the potential sources of GM presence and the assumptions that Defra is proposing should underpin the coexistence regime?

Yes, this seems an entirely logical analysis of the situation.

P22 Do stakeholders accept Defra’s proposed overall basis for the coexistence regime as outlined above?

We believe this is a satisfactory overall basis on which to proceed. The statutory requirements are simple and enforceable, and secondary measures are already part of good agricultural practice in any case. However, we have a concern that, despite the simplicity of the proposal, the setting of statutory separation distances could be unnecessarily rigid in practice. In particular, if crops capable of cross-pollination are grown in adjacent fields, the separation distance could safely be reduced if barrier rows of non-GM varieties were to be grown to capture pollen. Equally, we trust there will be no statutory separation distance necessary when the adjacent non-GM crop is different and therefore not capable of cross-pollination. This should apply equally if the crop is essentially fully self-pollinated, as is the case for wheat, or if it reproduces vegetatively, as for potatoes.

In the longer term, on the basis that coexistence rules should not be discriminatory, the same statutory separation regime will be necessary to avoid excessive cross-pollination of premium-quality GM crops, modified for valuable quality traits, by non-GM varieties of the same sexually compatible crops, whatever the growing regime..

P23 Do stakeholders have particular comments on the analysis in the draft Regulatory Impact Assessment (at Annex B), and on what it says about Defra’s plans to enforce, monitor and review the coexistence regime?

The options available are clearly set out in Appendix 2. We favour a flexible, pragmatic approach based on existing SCIMAC guidelines (option ii). Anything over and above this would be disproportionate, especially considering that there are unlikely to be many claims for redress if the coexistence guidelines are properly followed, and compensation amounts would generally be quite modest. There would be a need for a proper oversight/arbitration process, particularly to avoid instances where organic or conventional farmers may deliberately create conditions conducive to cross-pollination. The proposed review of the procedures after 2-3 years is entirely appropriate.

P28 Do stakeholders agree with these proposed distances? If not, which aspect(s) of the supporting analysis and proposed assumptions made by Defra are thought to need further consideration? What do stakeholders think of Defra’s proposal not to differentiate separation distances by GM Index or field depth?

These distances, based as they are on data from a reputable independent organisation (NIAB) are broadly acceptable. They err on the precautionary side, but that is not unreasonable in the first instance. Nevertheless, it is important that the proposed separation distances be reviewed in the light of experience, so as not to place an unnecessarily onerous regime on an expanding GM farming sector. The proposal to have a single separation distance per crop is a sensible compromise, in order not to encourage the development of an unduly cumbersome system.

P29 Do stakeholders accept how the proposed separation distance requirement would apply? What do stakeholders think of the idea at paragraph 87 that some local discretion might be allowed?

We welcome the very sensible and pragmatic suggestion that neighbouring farmers be allowed to come to different, workable solutions based on their local circumstances. Farmers generally manage their land in ways which do not negatively impact their neighbours, and should, as far as possible, be allowed the freedom to do so in ways which are appropriate to their particular circumstances. In the same way, we strongly support the suggestion that the option to plant barrier rows in lieu of statutory separation distances be explicitly included in the proposed legislation. Nevertheless, we would not wish to see such flexibility be misused in order to restrain planting of GM seed. To make it clear: farmers should be required to comply with the statutory separation distances unless mutual agreement with neighbours makes this unnecessary. No farmer should have to exceed statutory requirements.

P31 Do stakeholders have any comments on how the proposed notification and liaison requirement would operate? What do stakeholders think about having a single notification deadline for spring-sown crops, rather than separate deadlines for spring rape and maize respectively (paragraphs 91/92)?

The arrangements proposed seem eminently sensible. In practice, the vast majority of farmers would voluntarily provide the necessary information to their neighbours, with no need for a statutory requirement. Nevertheless, if this notification and response is carried out in the simple way suggested, with lack of response taken as acceptance, this seems to us to be acceptable. A single deadline for spring-sown crops is also a sensible compromise in order to avoid undue complexity.

P34 Do stakeholders think this is a reasonable way forward on farm-saved seed?

This is entirely reasonable. Good Agricultural Practice should result in no problems being experienced. Since most farmers use oilseed rape as a break crop, it is also unlikely that seed would be saved for more than one generation.

P35 Do stakeholders agree that a formal training requirement is unnecessary?

We agree that there is no need for formal training.

P36 Do stakeholders accept this conclusion on honey production?

Yes: this is the only rational conclusion. Any ideological objections to the proposal should be resisted.

P40 Should responsibility for any threshold below 0.9% rest with GM or organic growers? How would organic producers cope with a threshold lower than 0.9% if the onus for meeting it rested with them? Are there important points that are not covered in the arguments outlined above?

If a lower threshold were to be introduced for organic produce, responsibility for meeting this clearly rests with the organic grower. In practice, there is no logical reason for a lower threshold to be introduced in any case: a position recognised by the proposed confirmation of a 0.9% level in Regulation 2092/91. Organic farming standards are (with the exception of input definitions) process based. In other words, the composition of the final food is immaterial as long as the organic standards have been met during cultivation.

Thus, organic produce can (and does) contain residues of legal man-made pesticides, even though these are not permitted to be used by organic farmers. However, the organic movement wants to distance itself strongly from GM crops. Hence the suggestions for lower threshold levels and – some suggest – even a zero tolerance of GM. This ignores the practical realities of farming. Organic crops are inevitably routinely “contaminated” by low levels of conventional crops. It is unreasonable to expect higher purity standards to be applied vis-à-vis GM produce than is the norm. If organic growers, for whatever reason, feel the need to operate to lower thresholds, it is up to them to find a viable way to achieve this, remembering that this should not be to the disadvantage of non-organic neighbours.

P41 What do stakeholders think of this analysis – is there any firm evidence that would call this into doubt or support a different conclusion? Is there an alternative analysis that should be considered?

This analysis is sound. A 0.9% threshold already represents a tight tolerance for agricultural produce, where typically admixtures of several percent may be tolerated. Meeting it, as already demonstrated, should be straightforward in the vast majority of cases if all farmers abide by the rules set down. In practice, nearly all samples would be well below the threshold, but this is not the same as saying that a much lower threshold level could be set and adhered to. Setting the threshold at the level of detection would effectively mean the end of either organic or GM farming in the UK, neither of which would be acceptable.

P42 What do stakeholders think about this? Is the expectation that demand from the organic sector will generate production of enough seed which is below EU labelling thresholds to enable a threshold for organic produce lower than 0.9% to be met? Will consumer demand for organic products distinguish between a GM threshold of 0.9% and, say, 0.5%?

It is conceivable that, over time, sufficient seed could be produced to supply an organic market based on a lower threshold, particularly as only a limited range of organic crops are produced in practice, and organic farming is never likely to take more than a few percent of UK farmland. However, we believe that the goal of a lower threshold limit would offer no real advantages to anyone: a few purists might still feel that any detectable levels of GM were still unacceptable, whereas the difference in threshold would be immaterial to the great majority of consumers of organic produce. The overall effect would be a negative one for organic farmers, for no tangible benefit.

P44 Do stakeholders accept this analysis? Are there technical points that need to be clarified or points not covered above that should be considered?

We agree with this analysis. Any significant lowering of the threshold would result in considerable additional costs for organic growers. Additional uncertainties and concerns would needlessly be introduced. We would argue that the existing 0.9% threshold should serve as a workable and pragmatic standard for all non-GM agriculture, including organic.

P44 Is a process-based standard an alternative way forward? How practical is it?

A process-based standard would be both practical and consistent with all other standards for organic produce. Legislation will, in any case, demand that there is less than 0.9% GM present, but a philosophical approach which is based on elimination of genetic modification and its products as inputs to the organic supply chain would be fully in keeping with the standards for the use of pesticides, for example. This rightly puts the onus on the organic grower and supplier to meet this marketing standard, while ensuring that farm-level coexistence measures are consistent, no matter how neighbouring land is farmed.

P44 Overall, what do stakeholders think is the appropriate legal threshold for adventitious GM presence in organic products, bearing in mind the various factors considered above? With the general objective being to minimise GM presence as far as possible, but allowing for the practical constraints, what should be the specific aim in relation to organic production? Should the Government support the Commission’s proposal to fix the threshold at 0.9% or argue for a lower figure?

There is no rational, sound basis for the Government to do other than support the Commission’s proposal for a statutory 0.9% threshold. Neither safety nor consumer protection standards would be improved by arguing for a lower level. If some members of the organic movement choose to opt for more stringent standards for marketing purposes, that is entirely up to them. Farmers who choose in future to grow GM crops will already have tight standards to comply with, and it is unreasonable and disproportionate to expect them to bear further costs on behalf of organic farmers who may unilaterally choose to adopt different standards.

P47 Have we correctly identified the range of losses that might occur in crop values? What are your views on the proposed approach for dealing with the corn-on-the-cob scenario?

The range of losses has been correctly identified. We support the analysis, which recognises that economic losses are likely to be infrequent and relatively minor, and based on whole field analysis at minimum. Indeed, if the non-GM farmer has contracted to sell his whole crop, comprising several fields, then it is the threshold level in produce mixed from the entire cropped area which should trigger a potential claim for redress.

The general approach to the corn-on-the-cob scenario is sensible, but we have concerns about the proposal to test halfway into a field if the threshold level in the first row is exceeded. In practice, the level of cross-pollination would drop off rapidly, and we suggest that testing should be done on, for example, the tenth row in to determine the extent of possible loss.

P48 Should consequential or additional losses be covered by any redress mechanism? If so, which should be covered and why? How likely are these to occur? Are there any other types of loss that should be considered?

In situations where both parties (GM and non-GM farmers) have followed all the required procedures and the separation distance has been properly maintained, it is appropriate that only direct losses should be covered. A farmer growing a crop to a contract is inevitably exposed to a number of risks that may result in him not being able to fulfil the contract in its entirety. This may come about for example because of poor yield due to adverse weather or pest infestation, or failure to meet size, shape or other quality standards. Meeting the GM threshold should be seen in this context: it is another risk taken by the farmer and should be carried by him in the same way. In practice, such consequential loss is likely to be an infrequent occurrence, and adding GM to the equation would be expected to make little difference.

P49 What should the eligibility requirements be for non-GM farmers to seek redress? Are there particular criteria that have not been highlighted?

It seems to us that the essential criteria are as set out in paragraph 150. It is essential that the non-GM farmer fully abides by the obligations of the coexistence regime and can demonstrate that his crop would have been sold for a higher price given a lower level of adventitious presence of GM material. Sampling and testing as a basis for any claim should be carried out to agreed standards and, where appropriate, subject to retest. It is important that an experienced and impartial arbiter is available to decide on the merits of contested cases.

P50 Are there any alternative ways of distributing the burden on the GM sector? Are there any strong arguments or pros/cons to each approach that have not been covered?

An industry-funded scheme has the advantage of simplicity and flexibility. In effect, of course, the cost would be passed on to the farmer via the seed premium. However, in practice, the amount to be recovered is likely to be rather small, since a properly operated coexistence regime as laid out previously should give rise to very small numbers of claims. By requiring the seed industry to underwrite compensation payments, Government would be allowing companies to come to whatever agreement was necessary between themselves to fund the scheme and recover costs on a fair and equitable basis.

P54 Which redress mechanism do you favour and why? If a compulsory redress mechanism is your preferred option, which of the models at paragraph 166 should it employ?

We favour option 2: the voluntary industry-led scheme. This has the benefits of simplicity and flexibility and would be both quicker and cheaper to set up than a statutory scheme. Settlement of claims is likely to be quicker and less bureaucratic than any statutory mechanism. It is also clear that leaving settlement of claims to the courts would be entirely inappropriate, and offers no advantages over option 2. Although the document specifically does not cover insurance options, we would add that there seems no reason for specific insurance products to be developed to cope with the infrequent, low value claims which are likely to arise and which would, in any case, be covered under the option 2.

P57 How could a crop register aid coexistence? Are there other reasons to justify the establishment of a register? How should any register relate to a notification requirement? If a register is established should the information be available to everyone? How would a register be funded?

In our view, a public crop register is unnecessary and would be no aid to successful coexistence. It could just as easily be argued that organic farmers should register their intention to plant particular crops in specific fields, so that farmers considering planting GM crops could consult it and be aware of any particular constraints on their cropping patterns. However, neither type of register would help at all with practical coexistence, which should proceed on the sensible and rational basis of good neighbourliness. A register would be expensive, difficult to verify fully for accuracy, and merely provide information to those who either do not need it or would want wilfully to misuse it.

P60 Do stakeholders have particular comments on the guidance that Defra could make available on GM-free zones. Are there relevant points that have not been covered in the above?

Given the operation of a coexistence scheme of the type proposed, the creation of “GM-free” zones seems to us to serve no practical purpose and to be merely ideological. That said, farmers are clearly free to make their own choices on the issue, but must be fully responsible for any costs involved and will have no right to dictate to other farmers what they can plant, if those farmers observe the requirements of the coexistence regime.


Cambridge                                                                               29th September 2006