Commission Recommendations on Coexistence of Genetically Modified Crops with Conventional and Organic Farming

views updated

Commission Recommendations on Coexistence of Genetically Modified Crops with Conventional and Organic Farming


By: Commission of the European Communities

Date: July 23, 2003

Source: Commission of the European Communities. "Commission Recommendation 23 July 2003 on Guidelines for the Development of National Strategies and Best Practices to Ensure the Co-existence of Genetically Modified Crops with Conventional and Organic Farming." <> (accessed May 29, 2006).

About the Author: The Commission of the European Communities, also known as the European Commission, is the representative lawmaking body for the European Union. It is located in Brussels, Belgium.


Genetically modified (GM) crops are plants, such as cotton, corn, or soybeans, whose genetic makeup (DNA) has been directly modified using genetic engineering techniques. GM animals are also being produced, but GM plants have been of special concern to critics of genetic engineering because plants broadcast their DNA on the wind in the form of pollen, whereas animals can only transfer their DNA by mating. GM plants and animals are often lumped together under the term genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The use of GM plants and animals in agriculture has been controversial, with many citizens' groups and a minority of scientists maintaining that genetic modification presents unknown risks for both the environment (since engineered genes, unlike other pollutants, can potentially reproduce themselves without limit) and for the health of humans who eat genetically modified food. The majority of scientists in industry and government have maintained that such concerns are unfounded. Public opinion in Europe has been more negative about the introduction of GM crops into the food supply than in the United States, leading the European Union to take several restrictive steps regarding the production and importation of GM foods in Europe.

In 2003, the European Commmission—the executive branch of the European Union, consisting of one commissioner from each of the Union's twenty-five member states—released its recommendations for the farming of GM plant crops in Europe. This document described some of the concerns that arise when mixing GM crops and organic or conventional crops in the landscape, and offered suggestions for coexistence of GM crops with other crops. The suggestions were generalized, not specific. For example, a typical recommendation is, "For self-pollinating crops and plants where the harvested product is not a seed, such as beets and potatoes, shorter distances are possible. Isolation distances should minimize but not necessarily eliminate gene flow by transfer. The objective is to ensure a level of adventitious [accidental] presence below the tolerance threshold."



Having regard to the Treaty establishing the European Community, and in particular Article 211 thereof,

Having regard to the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on "Life sciences and biotechnology—A strategy for Europe" … and in particular Action 17 thereof,


  1. No form of agriculture, be it conventional, organic or agriculture using genetically modified organisms (GMOs), should be excluded in the European Union.
  2. The ability to maintain different agricultural production systems is a prerequisite for providing a high degree of consumer choice.
  3. Coexistence refers to the ability of farmers to make a practical choice between conventional, organic and GM-crop production, in compliance with the legal obligations for labelling and/or purity standards.
  4. Specific coexistence measures to protect the environment and the human health, if needed, are included in the final consent of the authorisation procedure in accordance with Directive 2001/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, with a legal obligation for their implementation.
  5. The issue of coexistence addressed in this Recommendation concerns the potential economic loss and impact of the admixture of GM and non-GM crops, and the most appropriate management measures that can be taken to minimise admixture.
  6. Farm structures and farming systems, and the economic and natural conditions under which farmers in the European Union operate, are extremely diverse, and efficient and cost-effective measures for coexistence vary greatly between the different parts of the European Union.
  7. The European Commission considers that measures for coexistence should be developed and implemented by the Member States.
  8. The European Commission should support and advise Member States in this process by issuing guidelines for addressing coexistence.
  9. Such guidelines should provide a list of general principles and elements for the development of national strategies and best practices for coexistence.
  10. Two years after the publication of the present Recommendation in the Official Journal of the European Union, and based on information from Member States, the Commission will report to the Council and the European Parliament on the experience gained in the Member States concerning the implementation of measures to address coexistence, including, if appropriate, an evaluation and assessment of all possible and necessary steps to take.


  1. In developing national strategies and best practices for coexistence Member States should follow the guidelines provided in the Annex to this Recommendation.
  2. This Recommendation is addressed to the Member States.

Done at Brussels, 23 July 2003.

For the Commission

Franz Fischler

Member of the Commission


1.1. The concept of coexistence

The cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the EU is likely to have implications for the organisation of agricultural production. On the one hand, the possibility of the adventitious (unintended) presence of genetically modified (GM) crops in non-GM crops, and vice versa, raises the question as to how producer choice for the different production types can be ensured. In principle, farmers should be able to cultivate the types of agricultural crops they choose, be it GM crops, conventional or organic crops. None of these forms of agriculture should be excluded in the EU.

On the other hand, the issue is also linked to consumer choice. To provide European consumers with a real choice between GM food and non-GM food, there should not only be a traceability and labelling system that functions properly, but also an agricultural sector that can provide the different types of goods. The ability of the food industry to deliver a high degree of consumer choice goes hand in hand with the ability of the agricultural sector to maintain different production systems.

Coexistence refers to the ability of farmers to make a practical choice between conventional, organic and GM-crop production, in compliance with the legal obligations for labelling and/or purity standards.

The adventitious presence of GMOs above the tolerance threshold set out in Community legislation triggers the need for a crop that was intended to be a non-GMO crop, to be labelled as containing GMOs. This could cause a loss of income, due to a lower market price of the crop or difficulties in selling it. Moreover, additional costs might incur to farmers if they have to adopt monitoring systems and measures to minimise the admixture of GM and nonGM crops. Coexistence is, therefore, concerned with the potential economic impact of the admixture of GM and non-GM crops, the identification of workable management measures to minimise admixture and the cost of these measures.

The coexistence of different production types is not a new issue in agriculture. Seed producers, for example, have a great deal of experience of implementing farm management practices to ensure seed purity standards. Other examples of segregated agricultural production lines include yellow dent field maize for animal feed, which successfully coexists in European agriculture with several types of "speciality maize" grown for human consumption, and waxy maize grown for the starch industry.

1.2. Economic aspects of coexistence versus environmental and health aspects

It is important to make a clear distinction between the economic aspects of coexistence and the environmental and health aspects dealt with under Directive 2001/18/EC on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment.

According to the procedure laid down in Directive 2001/18/EC, the authorisation to release GMOs into the environment is subject to a comprehensive health and environmental risk assessment. The outcome of the risk assessment can be one of the following:

  • a risk of an adverse effect to the environment or health that cannot be managed is identified, in which case authorisation is refused,
  • no risk of adverse effects on the environment or health is identified, in which case authorisation is granted without requiring any additional management measures other than those specifically prescribed in the legislation,
  • risks are identified, but they can be managed with appropriate measures (e.g. physical separation and/or monitoring); in this case the authorisation will carry the obligation to implement environmental risk management measures.

If a risk to the environment or health is identified after the authorisation has been granted, a procedure for the withdrawal of the authorisation or for modifying the conditions of consent can be initiated under the safeguard clause set out in Article 23 of the Directive.

Since only authorised GMOs can be cultivated in the EU, and the environmental and health aspects are already covered by Directive 2001/18/EC, the pending issues still to be addressed in the context of coexistence concern the economic aspects associated with the admixture of GM and non-GM crops.…

1.5. Purpose and scope of the guidelines

The present guidelines, which take the form of non-binding recommendations addressed to the Member States, should be seen in this context. Their scope extends from agricultural crop production on the farm up to the first point of sale, i.e. "from the seed to the silo."

The document is intended to help Member States develop national strategies and approaches to address coexistence. Focusing mainly on technical and procedural aspects, the guidelines provide a list of general principles and elements to aid Member States in establishing best practices for coexistence.


The Commission's recommendations imply that farming with GM organisms must be allowed in Europe and that only the detailed arrangements are in question. The very title of the report—which declares the Commission's intention "to ensure the coexistence of genetically modified crops with conventional and organic farming"—rules out the possibility of banning GM foods altogether. This is politically significant because of widespread popular opposition to GM foods in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In July 2005, a Europe-wide survey conducted by the Commission found that fifty-four percent of Europeans agreed with the statement that "food made from genetically modified organisms is dangerous." (Note that the poll question refers to dietary hazard only, not to the possibility of ecological danger from engineered genes mixing with wild populations.) Similar majorities in Russia, China, and Canada disapprove of GM foods, with widespread opposition in Africa as well (where polling figures are not available). In some European countries, especially Germany and France, the percentage of persons disapproving of GM foods is near ninety percent.

This situation—where GM foods are supported by most experts and opposed by many citizen groups and a minority of experts—has created political tensions. Since 1990, European consumers have repeatedly been told that certain food products are safe only to find later that they were not. Beef contaminated by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) is, perhaps, the most notorious example. Such occur-rences have eroded the public trust in experts' reassurances.

When the European Commission held a conference entitled "Co-existence of Genetically Modified, Conventional and Organic Crops" in Vienna, Austria, in April 2006, representatives from citizen groups gave presentations in which they strongly objected to the idea of coexistence with GM crops. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements stated that "we have zero acceptance of GM contamination [of organic crops]" and that the "Commission proposal to simply allow contamination in organic food [up to a fixed threshold] is totally inadequate and inappropriate." The group called for "prohibition of GMOs in agriculture" and "strict liability and compensation to protect non-GM farmers" from contamination of their crops with modified genes spread through pollen or seed. The Friends of the Earth, a global coalition of environmental organizations, argued that "genetic contamination … is a new type of pollution created by industry" and called for a European "ban of GMOs currently authorized for cultivation and a moratorium on all GMO cultivation until an EU law preventing contamination and establishing strict liability and allowing EU Regions to be GMO-free is in place."

About two-thirds of the world's GM crops are grown in the United States, mostly corn, soybeans, and cotton, and canola (called "rape" in Europe—the plant name derives from the Latin for turnip and has nothing to do with sexual assault). In 2004, eighty-five percent of all soybeans, forty-five percent of all corn, and seventy-six percent of all cotton planted in the U.S. were GM varieties and over seventy percent of processed foods in American supermarkets contain at least traces of GM crops.

In 1998, the European Union placed a six-year moratorium on the importation of new GM crop varieties. In 2003, the United States, at the urging of probiotechnology groups, led the second and third largest GM-producing countries (Argentina and Canada) in complaining to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that Europe's refusal to import GM crops was an unfair trade practice. In February 2006, the WTO ruled in favor of the GM crop producers (but, the European Commissions guidelines of 2004 had already, in effect, lifted the moratorium). Yet European consumers remain mostly hostile to GM foods, and European law requires labeling of foods that contain GM crops. Therefore, many European food-store chains refuse to stock GM foods. It may remain economically difficult to market GM foods in Europe even if the European Union complies with the WTO's order to accept GM imports.

Some Europeans have complained of U.S. bullying in the GMO affair. A European Union briefing document said in 2006 that "the U.S. appears to believe that GMOs that are considered to be safe in the U.S. should be de facto deemed to be safe for the rest of the world." A representative of Friends of the Earth said in response to the 2006 WTO ruling that "The WTO undermines democracy and puts business interests before the welfare of the public. It should not be allowed to rule on what we eat or what our farmers grow."



Ruse, Michael, and David Castle, eds. Genetically Modified Foods: Debating Biotechnology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002.


Gillis, Justin, and Paul Blustein. "WTO Ruling Backs Biotech Crops." Washington Post (February 8, 2006).

Web sites

European Commission. "Conference, 4–6 April 2006, Vienna: Co-existence of Genetically Modified, Conventional, and Organic Crops." <> (accessed May 29, 2006).

Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "Fact Sheet: Genetically Modified Crops in the United States." 2004. <> (accessed May 29, 2006).

About this article

Commission Recommendations on Coexistence of Genetically Modified Crops with Conventional and Organic Farming

Updated About content Print Article


Commission Recommendations on Coexistence of Genetically Modified Crops with Conventional and Organic Farming