Co-Existence

  • Co-existence of different crops is not a new issue.
  • All forms of agriculture should, and can, be available to future generations.
  • CropLife International supports a practical approach that offers true choice to farmers and consumers, and one that does not impose disproportionate standards that would in practice equate to a prohibition.
  • Existing national laws on civil liability provide long-established, proven tools to manage any potential liability issues associated with co-existence.
  • Co-existence is about economics, not safety.
  • Co-existence requires mutual respect and tolerance between practitioners of different production systems: no single system has any right to dominate others.
  • Farmers and citizens must be free to choose to share in the proven benefits of GM.

Co-existence of various production methods is not a new concept to the agricultural community.  Farmers have practiced co-existence for generations so as to meet demands for different types of products.  Breeders and farmers are accustomed to breeding and producing different crops such as waxy and non-waxy maize, white and yellow maize, hot and sweet peppers, and high- and zero-erucic acid oilseed rape, alongside each other.  They are also accustomed to producing certified seed to meet defined purity standards.  This experience shows that co-existence of a wide range of production methods is not a problem, provided technical and procedural guidelines are carefully followed and cooperation between neighboring farmers is encouraged.  This applies equally to the introduction of GM crops: modern biotechnology does not introduce any new problems.

What is co-existence?

Co-existence is the practice of growing crops with different quality characteristics or intended for different markets in the same vicinity without becoming commingled and thereby possibly compromising the economic value of both.  Co-existence is based on the premise that farmers should be free to cultivate the crops of their choice using the production system they prefer, whether they are GM, conventional or organic.

Co-existence is not a safety issue

Co-existence is not about environmental or health risks because it refers only to the growing of crops (including GM crops) that have been authorized as safe for the environment and for human health by the country in which it is being grown, and which are therefore available commercially to farmers in the area.  Concerns about co-existence relate to potential economic loss through the admixture of GM and non-GM crops that may result in a lowering of the crop’s value, and with costs and time associated with identifying workable management measures to minimize such admixture

Co-existence is not a new issue

Co-existence of two or more crops of the same species is not a new concept.  Within a farming community, growing similar crops for different markets in the same farming region is not a new challenge.  For many years, what might be considered as incompatible crops – for example specialty maize grown for human consumption and waxy maize grown for the starch industry – have been grown in the same areas or even on the same farm.  Different types of wheat, barley and rice are similarly grown in close proximity and channeled to different uses (e.g. bread wheat vs. feed wheat; malting barley for the production of beer vs. animal feed barley).  Farmers follow simple but effective procedures to achieve agreed standards of quality and purity in their harvested product. It is important to note that agricultural crops are never 100% pure: co-existence means meeting agreed, low levels of admixture.

How can co-existence work?

Since different types of agricultural production are not naturally separated, suitable measures during cultivation, harvest, transport, storage and processing are needed in order to manage the possible accidental mixing (admixture) of GM and non-GM crops resulting from, for example, seed impurities, cross-pollination, harvesting and storage practices.

The use of GM crop varieties alongside non-GM crops therefore does not fundamentally change the current situation regarding co-existence.  As GM crops further become a part of commercial agriculture, they will be found at low levels when harvesting other varieties.  Equally, small amounts of other varieties will be found in GM crops.  This is a fact of life in agriculture, and GM crops are no different from others in this regard.  Co-existence between any crops or forms of agriculture is possible – as it has always been – by recognizing that absolute purity is not achievable, but that high purity is. Some important basic concepts relevant to understanding co-existence are:

  • Crops will only pollinate other varieties of the same crop.  Thus, for example, GM oilseed rape would have no influence on a farmer’s ability to grow organic maize in adjacent fields.
  • Cross-pollination will only occur to a significant degree if the crops are sufficiently close, the flowering periods are the same, and the receiving crop has not already self-pollinated.
  • Scientific studies show that for all crops, the majority of cross pollination occurs at the edge of the fields with a rapid decrease as the distance from the pollen source increases.
  • The potential for cross-pollination is only present in certain well-defined cases.  Good communication between nearby farmers and other codes of conduct can ensure problem-free co-existence through agreement to separate crops of the same type.

CropLife International Position on Co-existence

All agricultural systems that are deemed safe should have an equal opportunity to contribute to the agri-food production system under free market conditions.  Preference of one system over another must not be the result of artificial, discriminatory and impractical standards.  Different agricultural systems can co-exist perfectly easily to play an important role in sustainable agri-food production systems globally.

Today, crop varieties produced through biotechnology are grown by millions of farmers on hundreds of millions of hectares around the world (160 million ha in 2011).  The evidence is clear that farmers choose to grow these particular crop varieties as they offer benefits to themselves. They may also provide benefits to rural communities, the environment and consumers.

Co-existence guidelines relating to crops produced through biotechnology should focus on the feasibility and costs of management practices that aim to avoid the unintended presence of GM material in other produce.  Growers who will benefit from a specific quality standard should not expect their neighbours to bear the special management costs of meeting that standard; to do so would reverse fundamental concepts of freedom of economic activity and would establish a dangerous precedent.

Co-existence and the organic industry

Today, some organic bodies wish to apply a very stringent de minimis co-existence threshold for GM crops on their members (not as a legislative standard, but as a requirement for certification).  This is neither practicable nor reasonable.  This push by some to withhold certification if GM material can be detected would set an ever-changing and unreasonable threshold.  Nor is it consistent with current organic certification practices, which reflect the reality of agricultural practices, and have tolerance levels for other products and material (including pesticides, rat faeces, non-organic seed, etc.). Indeed, with the exception of standards for GM presence, all organic production standards relate to management practice alone, and have nothing to say about final product quality.

The burden of a segment of the organic community’s decision should not be transferred to the rest of the organic or farming community at large.  Even the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements does not support this view, taking the position that this new technology does not alter the traditional approach of certifying organic as a “production method”, rather than an end-product guarantee.  They therefore believe that mandatory testing for GM material should not be introduced for the verification of organic production.

We believe that thresholds adopted for conventional products should apply equally to organic ones.  In 2003, conventional agriculture represented 94% of all arable land worldwide, while agricultural biotechnology and organic agriculture covered 4.4% and 1.6%, respectively.  About 50% of organic farmland globally is used for low intensity grazing in Australia and Argentina.  Thus, in effect organic agriculture represents a maximum of 0.8% of all arable land (FAO, IFOAM, ISAAA and ISF statistics).  Decisions relating to co-existence should be rational and should take full account of these figures.  In addition, both GM and organic crop production is increasing in the United States – proof again that these two production systems can co-exist.

The EU and co-existence

Co-existence is a topic in the European Union which is not yet fully resolved.  A conference was held in April 2006 by the Austrian Presidency and the European Commission to discuss the issue.  The Commission has confirmed that there is no intention of imposing rigid co-existence rules across the EU; member states will set their own rules appropriately.

The European Commission published a set of guidelines in July 2003 about the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops.  The guidelines are based on the principle that co-existence is about providing farmers and consumers with a practical choice between conventional, organic or GM food and feed production.  These guidelines for member states suggest best agricultural practices to follow when growing GM and non-GM crops so as to enable the farming community to continue growing non-GM crops without exceeding the labelling threshold.  Since the publication of the Commission guidelines, a number of member states (e.g., Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain) have developed country-specific guidelines and/or legislation that provide rules for the growing of GM crops.

CropLife International supports EuropaBio’s and the European Seed Association’s efforts to introduce workable co-existence regulations in all EU member countries.  In particular, a workable threshold for seed should be agreed to and implemented EU-wide as a matter of urgency.  More specific information can be found here.