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One yes and one no ? two studies about the coexistence of conventional and
genetically modified plants. Is coexistence between traditional agriculture
and genetically modified crops possible? June 2005 by Michael Hagmann
translated by Tina Hooker, Checkbiotech.
This is the question that has divided opinions for some time. Last fall, a
WWF-sponsored study by the Research Institute for Biological Cultivation
(FiBL) in Frick, Switzerland was published, showing that coexistence was not
However, the Confederate Research Institute for Agro Ecology and
Cultivation, (Agroscope FAL Reckenholz), which has been evaluating the
situation for the Federal Office of Agriculture, has now reached the
?Corn, rapeseed and wheat, a coexistence would be quite possible,? says the
FAL report seen by Switzerland?s SonntagsZeitung.
The main cause for the contradictory findings is the safety margins that
have to be maintained between the traditional and the genetically-modified
crops so as to prevent mixture by pollination.
The FiBL study calculated a minimum margin of more than one kilometer for
corn, 600 meters for rapeseed and 100 meters for wheat, whereas the FAL
researchers considered a minimum margin of 50 meters for corn, 50 to 400
meters for rapeseed (depending on the species) and no safety margin for
wheat, to be more than sufficient.
How do such discrepancies arise? Especially since in both cases, the authors
of the study proceeded in practically the same ways: they analyzed the tests
on out-crossing of different plant species, calculating how far corn pollen
spreads, and how often this would lead to the propagation of foreign GMs
into conventional corn.
From this data, the FiBL as well as the FAL researchers estimated the
minimum margin that should be maintained between two fields. The main point
being that the percentage of foreign GMs in a field without genetic
intervention, can not surpass a certain limit. The necessary total area of
cultivated land with both conventional as well as genetically modified crops
can be calculated from these results.
And it is precisely here, at the acceptable limit of pollution by
genetically modified crops, that the studies differ in most basic ways.
While the FiBL study drew the line at 0.1 % GMs in the crop, the FAL
researchers tolerated 0.5%. Mind you, both values lie well under the
legitimate value of 0.9 % for food and animal feed, for which mandatory
labeling is thus not required.
Bernadette Oehen, co-author of the FiBL study says, ?We went under the
required limit by a factor of ten because cross breeding is not the only
possible source of pollution.?
But Franz Bigler from FAL thinks this is exaggerated ? especially regarding
wheat. ?Wheat is largely self-fertilizing. Already a margin of 5 meters
between fields is enough for the out-crossing rate to lie between only 0.01
and 0.02 %. So why one would demand a distance of 100 meters remains highly
unclear to me.?
But then Bigler sees another cause for the high safety margins requirements
of the FiBL study. ?Regarding corn, the FiBl recommendations are based for
the most part on a Russian study from 1940. Had they also considered more
recent studies, they would have obtained significantly smaller margins ?
even while maintaining extremely low limit values.?
Of course, the cultivation of genetically modified crops has yet to begin in
Switzerland. Should the situation change, the Swiss law concerning genetic
engineering stipulates that the protection of GM-free production as well as
the freedom of choice for consumers has to be guaranteed.
The FAL researchers state that, from a scientific point of view, nothing
should oppose the cultivation of genetically modified corn, rapeseed and
wheat next to traditional agriculture. However, farmers who would decide to
grow genetically modified crops would be required to take actions to ensure
the mandatory separation of genetically modified and traditional crops. And
in practice, there would also have to be arrangements made between farmers
regarding the choice of fields.
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