Truth: Co-existence means widespread contamination of non-GM and organic crops

Myth at a glance

“Coexistence” of GM with non-GM conventionally farmed and organic crops inevitably results in GM contamination of the non-GM and organic crops. This removes choice from farmers and consumers, forcing everyone to produce and consume crops that are potentially GM-contaminated into the indefinite future.

GM contamination cannot be recalled. On the contrary, since GMOs are living organisms, they are likely to persist and proliferate.

There have been numerous GM contamination events since GMOs were first released, since the GMO industry cannot control the spread of its patented GM genes. These contamination events have cost the food and GMO industry and the US government millions of dollars in lost markets, legal damages and compensation schemes for producers, and product recalls.

GMO industry representatives used to claim that GM contamination of non-GM crops would not occur and that farmers’ and consumers’ choice would be preserved.1 After it became clear that this was false, the GMO industry shifted the argument to lobbying for “co-existence” of GM, non-GM conventionally farmed, and organic crops. It argued that farmers should be able to choose to plant GM crops if they wish and implied that no serious problems would be caused for non-GM and organic farmers.2

But experience has shown that the arrival of GM crops in a country removes choice. “Coexistence” rapidly results in widespread contamination of non-GM crops, resulting in lost markets. Contamination occurs through cross-pollination, spread of GM seed by farm machinery, and inadvertent mixing during storage. Farmers are gradually forced to grow GM crops or have their non-GM crops contaminated.

Scientific surveys confirm that GM contamination is unavoidable once GM crops are grown in a region. For example, GM herbicide-tolerant oilseed rape (canola) seed can persist and remain viable in soil for years. GM herbicide-resistant “volunteers” – plants that were not deliberately planted but are the result of the shedding of seeds from GM crops previously grown in the field – were found growing ten years after the GM oilseed rape crop had been planted.3 GM herbicide-resistant oilseed rape was found to be thriving in the wild in North Dakota, often far from areas of agricultural production. GM genes were present in 80% of the wild canola plants found.4,5

Who is liable for GM contamination?

In countries where legal liability for GM contamination is clearly established, GM crop cultivation has become severely restricted. In Germany, a law has been passed making farmers who grow GM crops liable for economic damages to non-GM and organic farmers resulting from GM contamination.67 The planting of GM crops in the country rapidly declined and had been abandoned by 2012.8 The fact that farmers who previously chose to grow GM crops have ceased to do so because they could be held liable for damages is clear evidence that coexistence is impossible.

The GM seed industry also knows it cannot contain or control its GM genes. In 2011, after years of industry lobbying, the EU dropped its policy of zero tolerance of animal feed with unapproved GMOs, allowing contamination of up to 0.1%.91011 In doing so, it granted industry release from liability for damages resulting from GM contamination with up to 0.1% of GM crop varieties (“Low Level Presence”) that are under evaluation but not yet approved in the EU.9

In the US, the courts have recognized that GM crops are likely to contaminate non-GM crops. Two court rulings temporarily reversed US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approvals for the commercial planting of GM sugar beet and GM alfalfa. The courts ordered the USDA to halt the planting of the GM crops until it had completed an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the environmental and economic effects of contamination of non-GM crops.12

In the case of GM sugar beet, the USDA defied the court order and allowed farmers to continue planting the crop while it worked on the EIS. In the case of GM alfalfa, USDA completed an EIS in which it admitted that cross-contamination with non-GM alfalfa could occur and that the economic interests of non-GM growers could be harmed. But, bowing to heavy lobbying from the GM industry, USDA “deregulated” GM alfalfa, an action that superseded the court ruling and allowed planting of the crop without restriction.12

GM contamination has had severe economic consequences

GM contamination of crops has had severe economic consequences, threatening the livelihoods of farmers who receive premiums for growing organic and GM-free crops and blocking export markets to countries with strict regulations on GMOs.

Examples of GM contamination events include:

  • In 2011 an unauthorized GM Bt pesticidal rice, Bt63, was found in baby formula and rice noodles on sale in China.13 Contaminated rice products were also found in Germany,14 Sweden,15 and New Zealand, where the discovery led to product recalls.16 GM Bt rice has not been shown to be safe for human consumption. Bt63 contamination of rice imports into the EU was still being reported in 2012.17
  • In 2006 an unapproved experimental GM rice, grown for only one year in experimental plots, was found to have contaminated the US rice supply and seed stocks.18 Contaminated rice was found as far away as Africa, Europe, and Central America. In 2007 US rice exports were down 20% from the previous year as a result of the GM contamination.19In 2011 the company that developed the GM rice, Bayer, agreed to pay $750 million to settle lawsuits brought by 11,000 US farmers whose rice crops were contaminated.20A court ordered Bayer to pay $137 million in damages to Riceland, a rice export company, for loss of sales to the EU.21
  • In 2009 an unauthorized GM flax called CDC Triffid contaminated Canadian flax seed supplies, resulting in the collapse of Canada’s flax export market to Europe.22,23
  • In Canada, contamination from GM oilseed rape has made it virtually impossible to cultivate organic non-GM oilseed rape.24
  • Organic maize production in Spain has dropped as the acreage of GM maize production has increased, due to contamination by cross-pollination with GM maize.25
  • In 2000 GM StarLink maize, produced by Aventis (now Bayer CropScience), was found to have contaminated the US maize supply. StarLink had been approved for animal feed but not for human consumption. The discovery led to recalls of StarLink-contaminated food products across the US, spreading to Europe, Japan, Canada, and other countries. Costs to the food industry are estimated to have been around $1 billion.26 One study estimated that the StarLink incident resulted in $26 million to $288 million in lost revenue for producers in market year 2000/2001.27 In addition, the US government bore indirect costs of between $172 and $776 million through the USDA’s Loan Deficiency Payments Program, which offers producers short-term loans and direct payments if the price of a commodity crop falls below the loan rate.28 Aventis paid $110 million to farmers who brought a class action suit against the company29 and spent another $110 million buying back StarLink-contaminated maize.18 Researchers estimated that the presence of StarLink in the food supply caused a 6.8% drop in the price of maize, lasting for one year.30

As no official body keeps records of GM contamination incidents, Greenpeace and Genewatch UK have stepped into the gap with their GM Contamination Register.31 In the years 2005–2007 alone, 216 contamination incidents were recorded in the database.32

GM contamination: The learning process

“OK, we know that cross-pollination will occur but we’ve got thirty years of experience to say we know how far pollen will travel. And therefore what we’ve done is we’ll grow a GM crop at a distance away from a non-GM crop, so the people that want non-GM can buy non-GM, and the people that want GM can buy GM. The two will not get mixed up. Everybody will have the right to choose.”
– Paul Rylott, seed manager for Aventis CropScience (now Bayer), BBC television broadcast, 20001

“GM farming cannot ‘coexist’ in Europe without either accepting widespread GM contamination of non-GM crops or major changes to farming practices.”
– Friends of the Earth Europe, 200633

“If some people are allowed to choose to grow, sell and consume GM foods, soon nobody will be able to choose food, or a biosphere, free of GM. It’s a one way choice, like the introduction of rabbits or cane toads to Australia; once it’s made, it can’t be reversed.”
– Roger Levett, specialist in sustainable development, 200834

“The AC21 [USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture] has wrestled with identifying and quantifying actual economic losses to farmers resulting from unintended presence of GE material in their crops… There are… clear data that some consignments of identity-preserved and organic commodities have been tested and found to contain GE material in amounts that exceed contractual requirements or de facto market standards. Such rejected shipments pose problems for those farmers whose loads have been rejected.”
– USDA Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, 201235

Conclusion

“Coexistence” of GM with non-GM and organic crops inevitably results in GM contamination of the non-GM and organic crops. This removes choice from farmers and consumers, forcing everyone to produce and consume crops that are potentially GM-contaminated into the indefinite future.

GM contamination cannot be recalled. On the contrary, since GMOs are living organisms, they are likely to persist and proliferate.

There have been numerous GM contamination events since GMOs were first released, since the GMO industry cannot control the spread of its patented GM genes. These contamination events have cost the food and GMO industry and the US government millions of dollars in lost markets, legal damages and compensation schemes for producers, and product recalls.

References

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  2. SCIMAC (Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops. GM crop co-existence in perspective. 2006. Available at: http://sbc.ucdavis.edu/old_files/25542.pdf.
  3. D’Hertefeldt T, Jørgensen RB, Pettersson LB. Long-term persistence of GM oilseed rape in the seedbank. Biol Lett. 2008;4:314–317.
  4. Gilbert N. GM crop escapes into the American wild. Nature. 2010. Available at: http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100806/full/news.2010.393.html.
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  7. Hogan M, Niedernhoefer D. German court upholds GMO planting curbs. Reuters. http://uk.reuters.com/article/2010/11/24/us-germany-gmo-idUSTRE6AN55420101124. Published November 24, 2010.
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  14. Greenpeace and GeneWatch UK. Germany finds unauthorised genetically modified (Bt63) rice noodles. GM Contamination Register. http://bit.ly/1nEKmEO. Published June 15, 2011.
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  19. Reuters. Mexico halts US rice over GMO certification. http://www.gmwatch.org/latest-listing/1-news-items/3625. Published March 16, 2007.
  20. Harris A, Beasley D. Bayer agrees to pay $750 million to end lawsuits over gene-modified rice. Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-01/bayer-to-pay-750-million-to-end-lawsuits-over-genetically-modified-rice.html. Published July 2, 2011.
  21. Fox JL. Bayer’s GM rice defeat. Nat Biotechnol. 2011;29(473). Available at: http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v29/n6/full/nbt0611-473c.html.
  22. Dawson A. CDC Triffid flax scare threatens access to no. 1 EU market. Manitoba Cooperator. http://www.manitobacooperator.ca/2009/09/17/cdc-triffid-flax-scare-threatens-access-to-no-1-eu-market/. Published September 17, 2009.
  23. Dawson A. Changes likely for flax industry. Manitoba Cooperator. http://www.gmwatch.org/component/content/article/11541. Published September 24, 2009.
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