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EU report puts forward isolation distances for GM maize

(29 September 2010) On this week's meeting of the Agricultural Council of the EU, the Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli presented a Best Practice Document for the cultivation of GM maize. The report was drawn up by the European Coexistence Bureau to propose measures that avoid the mixing of GM and conventional maize. According to Dalli, the report is meant to help Member States in developing their own coexistence guidelines – in July the Commission had come forward with a proposal to nationalise the cultivation decision of GM crops. At the meeting several Member States criticised this move, though.

The measures suggested by the Coexistence Bureau relate to the storage of the seeds and, above all, to spatial isolation distances as best ways to limit or avoid co-mingling of maize from different cultivation systems. Even if the Best Practice Document is non-binding, Dalli explained that these measures "are in full accordance with the spirit and aims of the proposal" to devolve the definition of coexistence policies to Member States and to provide them with more flexibility to do so.

In compiling the report the Coexistence Bureau has not only drawn upon numerous scientific trials, studies and models covering different regions in the EU, it has also collaborated with 20 experts that were nominated by interested Member States. This work has resulted in sets of isolation distances that reduce cross-pollination between GM and non-GM maize and ensure compliance with different target levels for the presence of GMOs in conventional maize.

To keep the GMO content in grain maize below the current labelling threshold of 0.9 percent, isolation distances of 15 to 50 meters are sufficient, even under unfavourable wind conditions. For silage maize, where the whole plants are utilised, isolation distances of 0 to 25 metres are enough. Given that currently no thresholds have been defined yet for the admixture of GM material in conventional seeds, the isolation distances for the cultivation of GM maize may need to be larger in future to ensure adherence to the overall legal threshold of 0.9 percent. For instance, for grain maize distances of 20-55 metres would be enough to limit cross-pollination rates to 0.6 percent.

However, the report also states that in specific cases the application of the recommended best practices may be difficult, e.g. in regions with small or narrow fields. In such cases the experts of the Coexistence Bureau see possible solutions e.g. in voluntary agreements between farmers on harvest labelling and the clustering of fields of one production system.

No regulation of coexistence at the national level? 

At the same meeting of the EU's Agricultural Council a majority of Member States objected to the Commission's proposal to nationalise the cultivation decision of GM crops. Among the opposing Member States were Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland. They feared clashes with the World Trade Organisation if no consistent rules were followed in the EU. Furthermore they considered the proposal a violation of the single EU market and the EU common agricultural policy. Only Austria supported these plans. Now a working group is to be established to clarify the issue and develop a consensus.


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