How Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) Enter the Food Chain in non-GMO Producing Countries

The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in livestock and crops, as well as trade and consumption of GMOs are highly controversial topics.

Proponents of genetic engineering argue that GMOs represent the only viable solution to food shortages in an ever-growing global population. They claim that the use of GMOs in agriculture and their consumption have caused no harm to livestock or humans so far. Heated debate also persists over GMO food labelling, with food manufacturers in the USA arguing that mandatory GMO labelling hinders the development of agricultural biotechnology, and may also “exacerbate the misconception” that GMOs endanger human health. Continue reading

Will Non-Transgenic GM Plants Win Favour with Regulators and the Public?

The creation of transgenic plants often involves the use of DNA sequences from bacteria and other non-plant organisms – in particular as vectors to introduce the desired genes. However, some people are concerned about the use of DNA from such distantly related sources, and regulators require separate rules to be complied with for transgenic plants compared to those derived by selective breeding. Could using plant-derived sequences help address those fears and reduce the regulatory burden for crop biotechnologists? 

Tony Conner and his colleagues from Plant and Food Research, New Zealand consider the potential for intragenic vectors in a paper in CAB Reviews. This involves finding DNA fragments within a plant species that are very similar to those from foreign DNA that have been used as vectors for many years. Various techniques have been developed, some involving small amounts of foreign DNA, but fully intragenic plants have no foreign DNA and are entirely composed from plant-derived sequences. 

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Why Can’t GM and Organic Just Get Along?

Growing of organic and genetically modified crops on neighbouring farms continues to be contentious, especially in Europe, but the issue of coexistence of same-species crops for different markets is not limited to GM. In a paper entitled “Can GM and organic agriculture coexist?”, Eberhard Weber points to the need for oilseed rape for cooking and industrial oil to be segregated, and similarly for crops for human food and animal feed for both maize and barley. Writing in CAB Reviews, he says that such situations work on the principle that some contamination will happen, but that “threshold values above zero for adventitious presence must be defined for coexistence rules.”

One company growing GM maize in Germany offered to buy maize from neighbouring non-GM farmers on the same conditions they would achieve without a GM neighbour. “The neighbouring farmers agreed, meaning that no coexistence problem arose,” says Weber, from Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg.

Weber notes that various organic organisations only require that the production process organic farmers use must not involve GMOs, rather than that they must ensure no GMO presence in their products. He quotes the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements: “Organic products are not defined as being free of unwanted pollution. Just as organic farmers cannot guarantee zero contamination from pesticides they do not use themselves, there is no way for them to guarantee that organic products will not be polluted by traces of GMOs.”

Weber looks at the various planting arrangements suggested to minimise gene flow to neighbouring fields. “Many experiments show that the GMO content is reduced with increasing distance as it should be, but no zero level can be achieved”. However, the variability of wind direction means no models can be entirely reliable.

As long as the same threshold value is valid for conventional and organic products, the GM farmer should not have to distinguish between neighbours with conventional and organic production, says Weber. ”The best way will always be agreement between farmers. As long as only farmers are involved, this can mostly be achieved.” However, he says that the involvement of other groups who try to influence political decisions on the rules make it difficult to predict the future of coexistence.

Can GM and organic agriculture coexist?”by  Eberhard Weber appears in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2008, 3, No. 072, 8 pp.