The Adventitious Presence of GM Seeds in Seed of Conventional Varieties
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Executive Rural Affairs Department consultation on the Adventitious Presence of Genetically Modified (GM) Seeds in Seed of Conventional Varieties. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary with the assistance of a number of Fellows with substantial experience in crop science and agriculture.
The approach of the Commission's Working Paper is impracticable and not science based. The RSE recognises the need to find practical rules and regulations governing the adventitious presence of GM seeds in seed of conventional plant varieties. However, an important issue is the ability (or more specifically lack of ability) of the enforcement agencies to police the policies that are being developed in respect of GM crops and products. Since there is presently a considerable difficulty in obtaining reliable analyses for low levels of GM contamination, the setting of low tolerances from ‘unknown’ GM contaminants is something of a theoretical exercise. Moreover, the analytical enforcement problems relate both to laboratories having knowledge of the specific GM transformation that they are looking for and to questions of laboratory ‘competence’ in applying the relevant analytical methodology, as well as the sampling methodology used.
The specific issues identified in the consultation paper are addressed below:
GM material which is not covered by an EU authorisation under part C of Council Directive 90/220/EEC would not be permitted as a contaminant within conventional seeds. In other words, a threshold of 0% would apply.
Whilst there is no evidence that a GM product approved in USA or Canada but not yet approved in the UK presents an actual risk, there is a principle that the risk is ‘unquantified’ if the product has not been approved by the relevant European Union (EU) Committee. In the light of this point of principle the 0% tolerance is theonly approach that will satisfy the requirements – and the demands of those who have concerns about GM technology.
However, it is the adventitious, non-intentional and unavoidable presence of GM seed in conventional seed lots, which is to be regulated. When you look at the supply chain through elevators and silos, and barges, ships, lorries and holding bins, the likelihood of adventitious presence is very high so that a 0% threshold will not be practicable. It could not, therefore, guarantee legal certainty and would lead to detection and potential crises from day to day. In addition, if these levels of 'contamination' are not consistent with world-wide acceptable limits then there will be inevitable trade problems.
GM material which is covered by a Part C authorisation should not exceed a threshold of 0.3% in the case of cross pollinating varieties and 0.5% in the case of self pollinating and vegetatively propagating crops.
Given the potential environmental importance of the threshold of GM seed in conventional seed, it might be expected that some attempt would have been made to base this threshold on more than guess work in order to achieve the 1% limit laid down for GM material in food and food ingredients. Consideration should also be given to the difference between organic production and conventional production. While reasonable tolerances could be allowed in relation to conventional agricultural production, much tighter tolerances would be expected fororganic production.
It should be noted that threshold values of 0.3% and 0.5% will be very difficult to test against. The likelihood of picking up contaminants will depend entirely upon the methods used to sample, with practical difficulties in particular for crops such as soya, maize and rape.
No GM plants of the same, or closely related species, may have been grown in the land used for seed production of a non-GM variety for:
- five years in the case of small seeded legumes (fodder plants), oil and fibre plants,
- two years for other plants.
The separation period between GM and non-GM plants of similar varieties should be based on scientific understanding and checked against existing information on the cross-contamination experienced in the production of certified seed of different varieties of non-GM crops. Particular consideration should be given to plants in the cabbage family, Cruciferae, which have buried seed banks that are persistent for a long time, and to tuberous plants.
The distances currently applicable to the isolation of seed crops of conventional cross-pollinating varieties should be doubled in respect of neighbouring sources of pollen from GM plants.
The Working Paper fails to give any scientific argument for the precautionary approach chosen by the Commission and does not state why - if at all necessary - an increase in separation distances should be 100%. Crucial guidelines of this sort should be based on science and not guesswork.
All packages of seeds must carry the following declaration on the required labels: "EU-unauthorised genetically modified organisms not present"
The proposed labelling provision will require the seed industry to give guarantees it will not be able to deliver, as the adventitious presence of GM seed in conventional seed can never be completely ruled out. The sampling scheme will only allow statements such as "Probability of less than 1 in 1,000,000 that this product contains more than 1 part in 10,000 unauthorised GM seed", unless it is proposed to test every batch.
Packages of seeds of genetically modified varieties covered by an EU authorisation under part C of Council Directive 90/220/EEC must carry the following declaration on the required labels: "genetically modified variety"
The labelling of GM seeds will need to take account of the draft EC proposals on GM crops for use in animal feed. In this draft legislation the initial proposal is to relate the labelling to the specific product registration number of the GM product. However, in order to know the product registration number of the crop you will need to know the product registration number of the seed. Therefore GM seed labels should also include specific product registration numbers.
Examinations required for compliance would be carried out either officially or under official supervision but this would not be necessary if the seeds have been produced in areas where GM varieties of the same species, or of a closely related species are not grown.
The provision that the rules will not be applied in certain cases could run the risk of abuse. It would also imply that such areas could be easily identified and would be stable. The working document does not provide information as to who would be responsible for determining such areas; what procedures would need to be applied if adventitious presence of GM should occur nevertheless; and what liability consequences could occur should adventitious GM traces of an event would be found in a GM free area.
Views on any anticipated costs arising from these proposed changes.
The costs of meeting this scheme are likely to be substantial and its cost and cost-effectiveness should be rigorously reviewed after five years. The measures should also be withdrawn in due course if it transpires that GM plants pose no threat to health or the environment.
In responding to this inquiry the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Review of the Framework for Overseeing Developments in Biotechnology (February 1999); The Scientific Advisory System – Genetically Modified Foods Inquiry (March 1999); The OECD Edinburgh Conference on the Scientific and Health Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods (February 2000); The Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission's Work Plan (November 2000) and The Assessment of Risk to Biodiversity from GM Crop Management (December 2000).