Coexistence between organic, conventional and GM crops

Posted on December 02, 2015

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by Stuart Smyth

Recently I was in Amsterdam attending and speaking at a conference that is focused on better understanding the production, and international trade of, different types of crops. Not production and trade of different commodities, such as wheat, barley or flax, but the different kinds of commodities, such as organic crops, conventional crops and genetically modified (GM) crops.

Regardless of what production process a farmer chooses to grow their crops, they all should have the right to produce and sell their crops without being negatively impacted. This has happened for decades with the use of thresholds which allow a percentage for undesirable material such as stones, sticks, insect fragments and other things like weed seeds and other grain varieties. For example, if Canada was exporting a shipment of wheat, this shipment would be allowed to have 2-3% of other crop varieties, such as barley, oats or canola.

Where a problem has developed is wherever a country has not accepted GM crops and detects a small level (less than 1%) of a GM crop in a shipment from another commodity. Even though the GM crop has been assessed for risks and been found to be safe to be grown, the very low level presence of a GM crop in a non-GM crop shipment can result in the rejection of the non-GM crop shipment. Several years ago, Canada had to deal with this very problem when GM flax was detected in Canadian flax exports to Europe at a level that was less than 0.1%.

While the rejection of a commodity shipment is a problem for a developed country like Canada, it would be considerably more damaging for a developing country. Concerns about having a crop shipment rejected because it contains trace amounts of a GM crop is prohibiting the adoption of GM crops in many developing countries. The result of this is that the technology of GM crops that can improve food security, are not available to farmers.

This is a difficult issue. Our goal in Amsterdam was to discuss this and to learn more about how coexistence is functioning in various parts of the world. It was an interesting conference, with 150 people from over 30 countries sharing their insights and knowledge about this subject, allowing the exchange of information between academics, government regulatory agencies, and the agriculture and grain trade industry. Nevertheless, the reality is that this still won’t change things.

At the conference, I spoke about how trade agreements between regions, such as between Canada and Europe, are not capable of resolving the trade problems created by the trade of GM crops. Recently Canada and the European Union completed a new trade agreement, and it doesn’t deal with GM crops at all. The agreement states that discussions over trade in GM crops will be dealt with as part of ongoing conversations.

While we couldn't solve this problem at the conference, we were able to listen and learn from others that have views different to our own. While this may seem like a small thing, it is likely the first step towards seeking a strategy that will contribute to resolving this difficult international trade issue and moving towards the coexistence and respect of differing agricultural practices.

 

This blog was first posted on the SAIFood website

Dr. Stuart Smyth
Assistant Professor, College of Agriculture and Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan