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Keep Your Distance. But How Far?

Only 15 of the European Union’s 27 countries have agreed laws for separating organic, traditional and biotech crops, with several reluctant even to debate such a sensitive issue, the EU’s farm chief says.

EU countries have been encouraged to make their own laws to facilitate cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops if farmers want to grow them, under guidelines published in 2003.

But those recommendations are not legally binding and most countries have been slow to draft or adopt national laws on what is known in EU jargon as coexistence.

Some haven’t bothered.

Biotech industry figures show that only a tiny fraction of the EU’s overall arable area is sown to GM crops; the only one that is as yet authorized for commercial cultivation on EU soil is a biotech maize developed by Monsanto.

But many biotech companies have applied for EU approval.

“We are progressing,” EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said in an interview March 12. “A number of countries are trying to find political agreement internally on this issue. We know that in some states it’s very touchy.”

For some countries, to open an internal debate on GM crop cultivation and separation “would be politically very sensitive,” Fischer Boel said. EU states consistently clash on biotech policy, with a small group of GM-wary states managing to drive every decision on new GM product approval into a deadlock.

The 15 countries that now have rules on coexistence are: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Netherlands.

It now looks difficult for the EU to apply common rules for coexistence, Fischer Boel said, despite conflicting signals from the commission over the years that had suggested this might be needed, as well as urgent calls from countries like Austria.

“The reason for the commission’s reluctance to enter into this issue is… you don’t have the same growing conditions in Finland as you have in the southern part of Spain,” she said.

“To decide on distances (between crops), which is one of the major issues, it would be very difficult to introduce common rules for Europe,” she said.

The commission has pledged to compile far more specific growing guidelines for farmers, envisaging more technical detail on crop segregation.

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