New York Times  [Printer-friendly version]
June 6, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Can genetically modified (GMO) crops coexist
with normal crops without causing genetic contamination? Many people
now say No. The biotech industry favors global contamination, and
once contamination occurs, it can't be reversed, so a precautionary
approach is the only hope for preserving the world's stock of non-GMO
crop genes.]

By Elisabeth Rosenthal

AUBINS, Spain -- Enric Navarro was dumbfounded when the letter arrived
from the testing lab of the Spanish organic farmers association in
late February, telling him his organic crop actually contained 12
percent genetically modified corn.

For Mr. Navarro, finding plants modified by biotechnology was almost
as traumatic as finding nuclear waste would have been. For four years,
he had lovingly planted hundreds of varieties of trees, shrubs,
flowers and herbs to attract just the right mix of insects so he would
not need fertilizers or weed killers on his precious seven hectares
(17.3 acres).

"If I could not farm organic, I would not farm," said Mr. Navarro,
dressed in sweatpants and a stained T-shirt as he sipped coffee in his
shed. "I could not sleep at night if I sold that crop."

He decided to burn the corn still in the field, to rid his farm of
what he called a "contaminant." But he is still not certain how the
unwanted seed got onto his property. There is no way to claim
compensation for his economic losses. And he is not sure when it will
be safe to use the field for his form of organic farming.

As the European Union begins opening its doors wider to genetically
modified crops, Mr. Navarro's byzantine experience serves as a
cautionary tale about the uncertainties surrounding the lack of
policies to deal with the problems that will almost certainly arise.

"There is a lot that hasn't been worked out," said Julian Kinderlerer,
of the Institute of Biotechnical Law and Ethics at the University of
Sheffield in England, who has advised the European Union on the issue.

For eight years, Spain was the only country in the union to permit
commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops. But in the last
18 months, the European Commission has approved 11 genetically
modified seeds for planting in the union, and in 2005, France,
Germany, Portugal and the Czech Republic began planting small
commercial plots.

In the United States, the vast majority of large commercial farms
plant genetically modified crops, like corn or soy, and there is no
general effort to distinguish those from nonbiotech crops and foods in
farming or food processing.

But the cornerstone of the European Union's new open-door policy is
the political conviction that it is possible for genetically altered
crops and conventional crops to coexist separately within Europe with
proper safeguards, like keeping a distance between fields and imposing
a liability system for accidents.

Scientifically, there are strong disagreements about whether
"coexistence" is possible, at what cost and even how it should be

"Coexistence is feasible in the vast majority of places, so long as
farmers talk to each other and cooperate," said Simon Barber of
EuropaBio, an industry group in Brussels. He said that experiences
like Mr. Navarro's should be rare.

But many scientists, and not just those with green credentials, think
coexistence is not feasible in many European countries, where small,
closely spaced farms are the norm.

"My experts all agreed that coexistence often just doesn't work," said
Chantal Line Carpentier, an agricultural economist who led a panel of
experts that studied the issue under the North American Free Trade

The study was requested by Mexico in 2002, after genetically modified
corn was found in fields in Oaxaca, hundreds of miles from the United
States. Mexico feared that the heartier modified variants would edge
out its unique native strains.

That report, "Maize and Biodiversity," released in 2004 by the North
American Commission on Environmental Cooperation, concluded that the
genetically engineered corn might well have a long-term effect on
Mexico's ecology and biodiversity and that it should be better studied
and monitored.

The United States and Canada attacked its conclusions. But some
farmers said the report did not go far enough. "Saying that G.M. and
non-G.M. farming can coexist is nonsensical," said Julian Rose, an
organic farmer from England. "It's like saying that noise and silence
can coexist in a room."

The scientific disagreement over coexistence is also partly a question
of definition: the biotech industry and new regulations proposed by
the European Union would permit some degree of inadvertent

The biotech industry considers "coexistence" achieved if mixing is
below 0.9 percent and, under proposed regulations, foods in the
European Union could be labeled free of genetic modification if they
contained less than this amount.

Such labeling is not required in the United States, where the two
types of product are regarded as essentially equivalent.

"I think that it's great we are able to commingle all types of corn,"
said Michael J. Phillips, a vice president of the Biotechnology
Industry Organization in Washington. "That allows us to sell it at low
cost and feed the world."

The concept of coexistence is problematic because there are simply too
many ways that mixing occurs, experts said. Wind blows seeds, mills
grind crops from different farms, a cookie contains oil made from
imported genetically modified soy. The genetically engineered corn in
Oaxaca was probably the progeny of corn ears that had been legally
imported for animal feed but whose kernels had been illegally used for

With so many routes, environmental groups say, the 0.9 percent limit
will inevitably be breached.

Mr. Phillips acknowledged that keeping modified and nonmodified crops
apart in fields or in the market was expensive and he ruled out
industry compensation. "If you're a small farmer trying to
differentiate your product," he said, "the onus is on you to pay for
the needed separation."

Last year, Greenpeace tested 40 organic farms in Catalonia. Nearly 20
percent had contamination, from 0.7 percent to 12 percent.

Spain decided to admit cultivation of genetically modified crops in
1998. Twelve percent of corn is now biotech -- about half of it in

Mr. Navarro's two fields are 70 and 100 meters from neighbors' farms,
a distance often deemed adequate to prevent mixing. But it was windy
last winter, and perhaps some seed blew in, he speculated.

There is no log of who plants genetically modified seeds and nowhere
to turn for compensation for his economic losses. Neither the
Agriculture Ministry nor the organic farmers association could provide
guidance on how to clean up a contaminated field.

Mr. Navarro recently prepared a field in the center of his property
for planting corn, hoping that distance and the rows of shrubs will
protect it. If not, he says, he will quit.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company