GMO Crops Disrupt Trade

Transport filled with corn.

[SANTIAGO] China’s rejection on March 24 of 21,800 tonnes of US corn containing an unapproved genetically-modified organisms (GMO) strain takes the volume of US corn turned away by the Asian nation since November to 908,800 tonnes.

The contamination detected by the Chinese has hit sales and corn prices, damaging US farmers growing GM-free crops.

China’s rejection of shipments containing low levels of GMOs is another indication of the surge in numbers of low level incidents of GMOs that are disrupting the food and feed trade.

A recent survey of 75 countries by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) shows that the number of shipments stopped for this reason has risen from only 60 between 2002 and 2008 to 138 between 2009 and 2012.

“The number of incidents is small relative to the millions of tonnes of food and feed traded every day,” said Renata Clarke, the FAO senior food officer who directed the survey.

The US, Canada and China – in that order – reported the largest number of incidents of food and feed imports and exports found to have been accidentally contaminated with GM material.

In the developing world Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, South Africa and Vietnam also reported incidents.

The main crops involved were linseed, rice, maize, papaya and soybean and soybean products, according to the survey. Once detected, most shipments were destroyed or returned to the exporting, the survey revealed.

GM trace amounts in non-GM food and feed come, for example, from trucks or machines used previously to transport or process GM crops and increasingly from contamination of non-GM crops by GM pollen drift or GM seeds becoming mixed with non-GM ones.

When asked which were the most important factors contributing to the trade risks posed by low-level GM contamination, 41.89 percent of the countries that participated in the FAO survey blamed different policies on GMOs existing between trading partners.

The FAO says that the lack of an international agreement defining or quantifying “low level” prompts countries to have their own regulations. Most countries, however, have a zero-tolerance for low-level presence, Renata Clarke tells SciDev.Net.

Over a third (35.14 per cent) mentioned the different timing (and duration) for approval of GM as another reason for the trade disruptions related to low-level GM contamination.

China’s rejection in March of US corn is a clear example of this point. Sygenta AG, producer of MIR 62 turned down by the Chinese, told Reuters that it had been waiting for four years for China to approve the strain.

What the FAO survey did not capture is the amplification effect that the detection of a GM trait in a food or feed import in a given country has over other trading partners.

According to US press reports, the discovery last year of a trace of GM herbicide tolerant wheat in a farmer’s field in Oregon, US, led the European Union to advise its member states to test some wheat shipments from the US.

In Asia, South Korea cancelled US wheat imports after Japan did; Thailand alerted its ports and China and the Philippines said they were following the US Department of Agriculture’s investigation into the GM contamination.

Risk-averse actions such as those of the Asian countries after the Oregon discovery are prompted by factors such as the lack of clarity about the impact of GM crops and foods on health and concern over the impact of GMO crops on the environment.

There are also fears that cross-contamination of non-GM crops with GM crops may prevent sales to countries where tough GM regulations apply.

The risk of cross-contamination exists in all countries that produce GM crops. In 2013, of 27 countries which planted GM crops, 19 were in the developing world, according to the latest report of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), an industry trade group.

Argentina and Brazil in Latin America and India and China in South Asia were in the lead. Each of the top 10 GM-producing countries – of which eight were developing – grew more than one million hectares of GM crops.

Almost half of the 75 countries that responded the FAO’s questionnaire produce GM crops for research or commercial use but most say they do not have low-level GM regulations and 37 indicated that they have little or no capacity to detect GMOs.

The FAO expects more low-level incidents in the future.

The reason given in an FAO background paper on low levels of GM crops in international food and feed trade released in March is that more countries are developing GM crops every year and there are new GM crops in the pipeline.

Renata Clarke adds that the number of incidents may also increase as countries improve their capacity to implement/enforce policies and regulations.

“Our assumption is that more capacity would have an impact on more frequent inspections and testing and consequently on the number of incidents,” Clarke said.