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16 Mar, 2014

FAO survey detects steady rise in low levels of GM crops in traded food and feed

13 March 2014, Rome (FAO media release) – The increased production of genetically modified crops around the globe has led to a higher number of incidents of low levels of GMOs being detected in traded food and feed, FAO said today.

The incidents have led to trade disruptions between countries with shipments of grain, cereal and other crops being blocked by importing countries and destroyed or returned to the country of origin.

Photo: U.S.D.A. Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) - http://www.gipsa.usda.gov/fgis/educout/commgallery/o_flaxbrn.html

Flax (L. usitatissimum), grown for its oil-rich seeds.

The trace amounts of GM crops become mixed with non-GM food and feed crops by accident during field production (for example, a field trial of a GM crop grown near a field of a non-GM crop), processing, packing, storage and transportation.

There is no international agreement defining or quantifying “low level”, therefore the interpretation varies from country to country. In many countries it is interpreted as any level at which detection is possible i.e. very low trace levels while in other countries case-by-case decisions are taken on what level is acceptable.

The GM crop in question may be authorized for commercial use or sale in one or more countries but not yet authorized in an importing country. Therefore, if the importing country detects the unauthorized crop, it may be legally obliged to reject the shipment.

In the first survey of its kind, 75 out of 193 FAO member countries responded to questions on low levels of GM crops in international food and animal feed trade.

The survey results will be discussed at a technical consultation organized by FAO to be held in Rome on 20 and 21 March to review the extent and pattern of trade disruptions caused by the contaminated shipments. The meeting will discuss trade issues related to low levels of GM crops, but will not debate pros and cons of GM crops.

The survey reveals:

  • respondents reported 198 incidents of low levels of GM crops mixed into non-GM crops between 2002 and 2012;
  • there was a jump in cases between 2009 and 2012, when 138 out of the 198 incidents were reported;
  • shipments with low levels of GM crops originated mainly from the US, Canada and China, although other countries also accidently shipped such crops;
  • once detected, most shipments were destroyed or returned to the exporting country;
  • the highest number of incidents involved linseed, rice, maize and papaya;

“The numbers of incidents are small relative to the millions of tonnes of food and feed traded every day,” said Renata Clarke, FAO Senior Food Safety Officer in charge of the survey. “But because trade disruptions may be very costly and given the reported increase in the occurrence of these disruptions, FAO conducted this survey and is holding a technical consultation to try to start a dialogue between countries on the issue.”

“We were surprised to see incidents from every region,” she said. “It seems the more testing and more monitoring they do, the more incidents they find.”

“Although testing technology is more sensitive now, I would note that 37 out of 75 countries responded that they have little or no capacity to detect GMOs, that is, they don’t have the laboratories, technicians, and equipment to do so,” she added. “Many countries have asked FAO to help improve their capacity to detect GMOs.”

“In the survey, countries also asked us to help them assess whether GM crops are safe to eat and we would like to see countries sharing any scientific findings they have on the subject,” she said. “For this purpose, FAO established FAO GM Foods Platform, a web page for countries to share information on safety assessment.” The platform can be accessed at http://fao.org/gm-platform/.

Other survey findings include:

  • 30 countries produce GM crops, either for research or commercial production or both, and more GM crops are being developed;
  • 17 countries do not have any food safety, feed safety or environmental regulations on GM crops;
  • 55 countries have zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized GM crops;
  • 38 countries consider the different policies on GMOs existing between trading partners is an important factor in contributing to the trade risk posed by the presence of low levels of GM crops in some traded foods;

In most countries, there are no generally applicable low-level GMO policies, legislation or regulations yet in place. Different options have been used when setting such policy, including a zero tolerance policy, a low threshold policy and a case-by-case policy.