11 February 2000

Support for GM buffer zone

By Andrew Blake

The Soil Associations call for a six-mile GM-free zone around organic holdings is justified, says an organic industry leader.

Even the UK Register of Organic Food Standards, the body MAFF appointed to implement EU organic regulations, is raising doubts about the governments reassurances on GM crops, so the Associations proposal is well warranted, says Elm Farm Research Centre director Lawrence Woodward.

"While a six-mile buffer zone might be crude and over-cautious for some circumstances, it is based on scientific observations and a credible theoretical possibility."

Very little research has been done on how genetic material moves in the countryside, he says.

"But it is certainly as scientifically valid as the assertion that all that is needed is the same buffer zones as for normal seed crops, especially if one bears in mind that the much-vaunted GM field trials are not looking at gene transfer pathways at all.

"Arguing that seed crop buffer zones are adequate for such a complex issue really is unacceptable."

The key point, he maintains, is that UKROFS believes consumers expect organic crops to be completely free of GMOs or their derivatives, either from deliberate manipulation or contamination and pollution.

"UKROFS position was taken after much debate. Given the current lack of knowledge about gene transfer or the flow of genetic material, it has supported a moratorium on commercial planting of GM crops pending further research."

The UKROFS board has noted the John Innes Centre report on possible routes of contamination of organic crops by pollen and other forms of transfer, he adds. "It feels that while that was a good start, more work needs to be done, especially to try to meet consumers des-ire for zero levels of contamination."

However, the science behind the organic sectors stance needs to do more than satisfy consumer perception, says Mr Woodward.

"Organic agriculture is based on the concept of holism. Simply put, this argues that all living organisms have an integrity that should not be compromised. By definition genetic engineering destroys this integrity, which is why the organic movement could never accept GM technology.

"The fear is that inadvertent incursion by genetically engineered material could compromise the integrity of living organisms and systems in the soil, plants and the wider ecosystem. We dont know what might happen if GM pollen alights on organic crops.

"The concept of GM-free production zones in the UK is certainly viable. But we need to know more about the issues involved and draw up appropriate procedures. And do not let us forget that many conventional farmers want to be GM-free."

Discussions are underway with MAFF, DETR, the John Innes Centre and SCIMAC to identify the necessary research and draw up protocols acceptable to all, Mr Woodward adds. &#42

ORGANIC/GM BUFFER ZONES

&#8226 Six-mile limit cautious approach.

&#8226 Consumers demand zero GM.

&#8226 Organic crop integrity vital.

&#8226 More research before lower limit.