NEW EU labelling rules for genetically-modified food and feed could force organic producers to break existing European laws, an influential group of MPs has been told.

Co-existence measures must be based on a 0.1% limit of detection threshold, according to Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett

This is because a previous EC Regulation prohibits the use of GMOs in organic food, he told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs GM planting regime sub-committee on Monday (May 17).

“DEFRA appears to accept that the new 0.9% threshold, laid down by the European Commission in July 2003, will apply for organic products,” said Lord Melchett.

“But our barrister says that‘s wrong.”

Avoiding GM is one of the main motivations for consumers to buy organic, he told the cross-party group of MPs.

“If up to one in 100 mouthfuls of organic food was GM, they would find that unacceptable,” he said.

Anti-GM campaigners, giving evidence to the EFRA sub-committee, said separation distances of at least 500m would be necessary to safeguard interests of non-GM growers.

“We feel that no separation distance would be acceptable for oilseed rape, because of the many wild relatives it is capable of crossing with,” said Genewatch UK director Sue Meyer.

But farm-scale trials and experiences with High Erucic Acid Rape have shown a distance of 50m is adequate, biotech companies told the sub-committee.

“It could be as low as 24.5m and still deliver below 0.9%,” said Supply Chain Initiative on Modified Agricultural Crops chairman Bob Fiddaman.

“The Soil Association appears to be at odds with the European Commission guidelines on co-existence,” said SCIMAC secretary Daniel Pearsall.

“The provision exists for member states to set a level lower than the 0.9% threshold, but in the absence of one, conventional thresholds apply.”

A 0.1% threshold would be an unacceptable statutory limit to tie farmers to, said National Farmers Union vice president Meurig Raymond.

“But if a farmer wants to get a market premium by aiming for 0.1-0.5%, we‘ve nothing against that.”

It should be that farmers responsibility, rather than a GM neighbour, to put measures in place to ensure that, he told the sub-committee.

Mr Raymond said the NFU opposes statutory GM-free zones “because it pitches farmer against farmer”.

“To tie farmer‘s hands at this stage would not help. It could prevent the industry benefiting from future GM developments.”

If farmers believe there is a commercial advantage from setting up voluntary GM-free zones, they should be allowed to do so, he argued.

But it would be extremely difficult to make a voluntary zone work, said Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr.

“It would only take one farmer to completely nullify it,” he said.

The EFRA sub-committee has been set up to explore more fully the details of the planting regime of GM crops following the government‘s decision to allow cultivation of GM maize.

In particular it is looking at liability and co-existence.