“I think there’s increased recognition within Europe that the pendulum swung too far… and I think there is a conscious effort to re-examine it.”
– Dennis Stephens
Trade disruptions caused by itinerant genetically modified (GM) crops can be fixed if countries end their zero-tolerance policy and set low but realistic thresholds, says Dennis Stephens, a consultant who administers the Canada Grains Council.
The good news is governments around the world, including the European Union’s (EU), are headed in that direction; the bad news is it’s a slow process, Stephens told reporters at the conclusion of the grains council’s 41st annual meeting April 20 in Winnipeg.
Participants agreed Canada should lead the way by implementing its own so-called “low level of presence” (LLP) policy, Stephens said. The federal government recently struck a committee of deputy ministers and senior officials to devise such a policy. And last week a working group from the Grains Innovation Round Table was meeting to come up with suggestions.
The thinking is if one or more countries approves a GM plant trait for feed and food consumption – essentially 100 per cent exposure – it should be a relatively quick process for other countries to assess and approve that trait at low levels.
The need for an LLP policy was driven home last year when Canadian flax shipments to the EU, contaminated with low levels of CDC Triffid, a GM flax, destroyed Canada’s biggest flax market.
The EU now allows flax shipments containing 0.01 per cent Triffid, but Canadian exporters say that’s still too low – about one seed in 40,000 based on four tests.
Regaining access to the EU flax market will not occur in the short term, Stephens said, while delivering a presentation by Detlef Volz, managing director of C. Thywissen GmbH, a German flax-crushing company, who was unable to attend.
Volz predicts Canada will export more flax oil to the EU and the EU itself will produce more flax.
According to Volz, Stephens said, the EU is considering a “technical solution” that could prevent future trade disruption. While the EU will continue to have zero tolerance for the presence of GM events it hasn’t approved, there’s speculation the threshold will be set at 0.9 per cent, but only for events that have been approved in other developed countries.
“They (EU) are recognizing that 0.01 per cent level of detection is impossible (to do),” Stephens said. “There are just too many trade disruptions because the trade can’t meet that level.”
Such low tolerances don’t just hurt those who export crops to the EU, but the EU itself, including crushers and farmers, he said.
“The (EU) farm community that was at one time opposing GMO is now a major player with other links in the value chain in Europe trying to bring about sanity into the regulatory envelope because they see their farms being hurt,” he said.
The zero-tolerance policy saw exports of corn gluten from the United States to the EU dry up as the risk of GM contamination rose. EU farmers have spent $5 billion to secure other livestock feedstuffs. In the meantime, EU meat imports are up.
Guidelines for an LLP policy were adopted in July 2008 by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an agency created by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World health Organization to develop food standards and guidelines, said Randy Giroux, Cargill’s scientific lead for corporate agricultural biotechnology.
The Philippines is the closest to setting an LLP. It’s proposing a four per cent tolerance for GM events it has not approved, but have been in one or more other countries, he said.
Switzerland is considering a blanket 0.5 per cent tolerance for the presence of all GM crop traits approved in Canada, the U. S. and EU.
Krista Thomas of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency wonders if Canada would even need to set a tolerance level. If an event is approved elsewhere, Canada presumably would find through its own assessment there was little risk, she said. If there’s little or no risk why set a threshold?
While the Canadian Wheat Board agrees countries, including Canada need an LLP policy, it’s nervous about going first. The result could see countries with GM-contaminated crops shipping to Canada, undermining the purity of Canadian exports, said CWB official Dustin Gosnell.
Giroux stressed an LLP policy, while allowing for the accidental presence of trace levels of unapproved events, blending would be forbidden and shippers would be expected to maintain high standards of sanitation.