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Coexistence: Nobody really cares about it

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symbol picture © mythja/iStock

One of the fundamental pillars of EU policy is the peaceful coexistence of organic farming, conventional agriculture and genetically modified plants. Farmers should be free to choose their preferred cultivation method and consumers should be free to choose whether or not to buy the products from the different farming systems.

"The uncomfortable truth is that for well over a decade there has been no meaningful discussion, let alone viable policies on how the coexistence of sometimes, radically different approaches to food production, can actually be achieved in a fair, transparent and sustainable way" is written in a report by Beyond GM, the British organisation who have set themselves the task of creating discussion platforms for broad-based debates on agricultural genetic engineering. ‘A Bigger Conversation’ is the title of this series, which now analyses the discussions of genetic engineers, organic breeders and seed companies on plant breeding after a day’s meeting in Brussels. Co-organiser was IFOAM EU, the European umbrella organisation for organic food and farming.

In these discussions coexistence was the main topic as it starts with breeding. Organic plant breeders made it clear that a lack of regulation and transparency for the new genetically engineered plants could have a negative impact on organic farming and consequently, economic existence. Even conventional breeders also drew attention to the problem that they would soon no longer be able to tell which new genetic engineering methods were used in breeding lines. The knowledge gap will increase and later be a problem when it comes to consulting on the varieties to cultivate.

An example of this (not expanded on in the report) is cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS), which is caused by natural mutation. CMS is increasingly used in the breeding of hybrid plants, whereby sterility is introduced into the plant cell by molecular biological methods. Under EU genetic engineering law, these methods are explicitly not considered to be genetic engineering, so they do not have to be labelled as such. Although organic farming associations reject these methods, it is however difficult in practice to trace back which CMS methods were used in which hybrid varieties, particularly for cabbage species, where they are widely used.

In the discussion, the question of how transparency, traceability and therefore coexistence could be ensured from the outset was known to be an area of disagreement. The Beyond GM report states that the European Court of Justice’s decision on new genetic engineering methods was "open disputed" at this otherwise objective and calm meeting. In the next step, the organisation wants to look into what an equal coexistence could look like and how it should be implemented practically and politically.


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