The Challenge of Co-existence
Corner Post Farm & Countryside Commentary
by Elbert van Donkersgoed May 26, 2003
Can genetically modified crops (GM crops), conventional crops and
organic crops co-exist on our farms? With difficulty. The growing
presence of GM crops on our farms has added urgency to the need
for dialogue about the long-term co-existence of different food
production systems. As genetically modified food co-mingles throughout
the food chain, the freedom to choose participation in unique food
production will either be challenged in the courts or become physically
The European Commission has researched scenarios for co-existence:
in April it held a roundtable for stakeholders. Last year the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's Initiative for Future Agriculture Food
Systems sponsored an event on strategies for co-existence. The underlying
issue is freedom of choice. Will consumers and farmers be able to
choose what they grow and eat - conventional, organic or genetically
modified? Agriculture is a biological process, much of it happens
in wide, open spaces. In spite of adherence to prevention protocols
and best practices, on-farm co-mingling is almost inevitable.
Consider these causes: seed impurities, cross-pollination, volunteer
plants from previous crops, harvesting practices and storage systems.
Much of the debate around the rising variety of food systems is
focused on health, safety and environmental issues. Co-existence
is not about the merits - or ills - of a particular farming system.
It is the practical question of how we share biological resources.
Co-mingling has economic consequences. Conventional and organic
farmers have to sell their crops at cheaper prices if genetically
modified seeds get into their fields. When genetically modified
crops show up in unexpected places, the whole food chain is affected
- think StarLink corn. The issues around co-existence are not new
Protocols and strategies for seed production, identity preserved
crops and specialty crops are well known. Consider buffer zones,
pollen barriers, crop rotation, control of volunteers, isolation
distances, timing the flowering of crops to different periods, separated
storage facilities.... But the issues have become urgent. Genetically
modified wheat will be a marketing risk and a legal issue, if co-mingling
is not managed from day one of its approval for our fields.
Genetically modified crops require built-in safeguards, like eliminating
modified gene expression in pollen, making pollen drift irrelevant
or making a quick test for the modified gene a necessary part of
approvals. Governments must recognize co-mingling as an insured
peril in crop insurance programs and define what it means for crops
from one food system to trespass into the fields of another. Divergent
food systems need to revisit their level of tolerance for each other.
Co-existence is a challenge in urgent need of a focused dialogue
in Canada. Details of the European Union's Round Table on research
results relating to co-existence of GM and non-GM crops can be found
A summary of the event on Strategies for Coexistence of GMO, Non-GMO,
and Organic Crop Production sponsored by the Initiative for Future
Agriculture and Food Systems (IFAFS) program of the Cooperative
State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department
of Agriculture, can be found at http://www.biotech.iastate.edu/IFAFS/coexistence.html#OVERVIEW.
Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the
Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. Corner Post can
be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham,
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