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Farmer Gene

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New GM Crops and Their Asynchronous Approval: Implications for International Trade
By Jens Katzek

No-one seriously doubts that global trade is an essential of the wealth created over the last forty years in countries we used to number in the “third world.” They are today some of the most powerful economies on earth. And 10 percent of all merchandise traits are agricultural products.  Agricultural innovations are also without doubt essential to address the demands and challenges of the future.

How do we bring these facts in line with national sovereignty, to decide which products should be on a country’s markets according to national regulation? One way is through harmonization of regulation. But the kind and amount of regulation is not only based on science, it is also a question of culture, tradition, vested interests and readiness to take risks.  The U.S. government would not authorize a product just because it is approved in Brazil. Countries will defend and assert their sovereignty.

When the European Union needs 13 years to finally permit growing the Amflora potato, a plant in which the expression of only a single and naturally occurring gene was blocked, we have a problem.  One can imagine the challenges when stacking different genes and traits becomes more popular.  Today we have nine crops authorized for planting. There will be some 25 in four years. The theoretical number of possible combination is then 250.000! Even if only one percent of these stacked traits will be of interest for the market we still have 250 products. No regulatory system in the world is ready for this. 

The only answer therefore seems to be tolerance thresholds. What we request from our neighbors and in our family can be also the guidance for international trade. In concrete terms this means, that a realistic threshold for low level presence (LLP) of GMOs in non-GM seeds and commodities is imperative as long as we have disharmonized authorization systems in different countries. The Global Adventitious Presence Coalition and the International Grain Trade Coalition encouraged countries to utilize the Codex Alimentarius Annex of Food Safety Assessment in situations of low level presence. Codex decided recently on recommend standards for these thresholds.  The EU, however, has not yet approved the Codex position.

How urgent such a tolerance is, becomes obvious when we have a look at the quantity of agricultural products traded on a global scale. We talk about more than a billion tons! If simply considering the size of the necessary infrastructure everyone understands why zero tolerance is not possible in a global economy. Today we have already tolerance for almost everything in our seeds and feed and food – but not for GMOs.

Sometimes practical things show that theoretical discussions will not help. In only one Panamax vessel on a ship you will find corn from some 1900 trucks. How could one implement here a zero tolerance? Painful, practical experience has shown again and again that this is simply impossible. Just recently corn dust was found in soy imports in the EU. Because of microscopic dust on the soy the entire vessel load was rejected. The EU feeding industry calculated that it lost 5 Mrd. € because they were obliged to use sub optimal feed during the last year.

An anecdote reported during the meeting was that the European Commission and some Member States are funding the same organizations which are attacking any adaptation of the existing regulation to face the challenges described above. Don’t ask for the logic behind this.

Dr. Jens Katzek is Managing Director of a biotech development consortium in Central Germany.  He has 25 years of regulatory, media, and policy experience.  He has been a scientific advisor to the European Commission, and worked for an environmental organization, a seed company, and was Managing Director of the German BIO, DIB.  He can be reached at katzek@biomitteldeutschland.de.

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