Encyclopedia of Food and Agricultural Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: David M. Kaplan

Agricultural Coexistence

  • Rosa BinimelisEmail author
  • Fern Wickson
  • Amaranta Herrero
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6167-4_538-1


European Union Food Sovereignty Coexistence Measure Specific Geographical Condition Unintended Presence 
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Agricultural genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have generated substantial controversy in Europe since their introduction and commercialization in 1998. On the one hand, GMOs have been promoted as “high-yield sustainable agriculture” and as a tool for increasing the competitiveness of European agricultural systems (European Commission 2002). On the other hand, opponents have challenged the potential benefits and raised questions about their purposes, exposing competing narratives of development and diverging visions for the future of agriculture (Levidow and Boschert 2008). Critics have also highlighted the failure to account for the significance of scientific uncertainties, paradigms, and values in the development of this technology (McAfee 2003), the loss of freedom of choice for non-GM producers and consumers (Altieri 2005; Binimelis 2008), and the increasing concentration of power and capital in the hands of ever fewer social actors through the widespread implementation of patents and intellectual property rights to control the development and distribution of crop varieties (Mascarenhas and Busch 2006).

In contrast to the introduction of GMOs in many countries (such as the United States, Canada, or Argentina), the initial resistance towards GMOs in Europe was so widespread, vocal, and robust that it resulted in a de facto moratorium on new GMO approvals in the European Union (EU) from 1999 until 2003. This moratorium lasted until new and specific legislation on key aspects of GM regulation (e.g., risk assessment processes and labeling requirements) was put into place. These controversies also crystallized, both in political and technical terms, into a debate on the concept of “coexistence.” This concept was first introduced by the European Commission in 2002 and expressed the desire to create a system in Europe in which there was “freedom of choice” among different agricultural practices, without excluding GMOs. It was also a response to the, at the time, emerging concerns about admixture between GM, conventional, and organic crops.

The potential for the different types of crops to become mixed (and the importance of having such a mixture be detectable and avoidable) was especially relevant for organic agriculture, as there is worldwide consensus among organic farmers and certification bodies that GMOs are excluded from organic farming (IFOAM 2002). In fact, this consensus was initially incorporated into the EU norm concerning organic food and feed production (Council Regulation [EEC] No. 1092/91). However, and despite this agreement, the Council of Agriculture Ministers – in apparent disagreement with the European Parliament – later allowed products containing up to 0.9 % of “adventitious or technically unavoidable” GMO content. In doing so, it argued that certification in organic farming mainly focuses on the production process, not on the end product. The result of this policy was that currently, each national organic certifying body applies its own standards, but in general, production is decertified in Europe if any organic product is found to be contaminated with GMOs above the set detection level (Verrière 2015).

Historical Background, Definitions, and Approaches to Coexistence

One perspective on the European approach to coexistence is that it aimed to open up for the definitive end of the de facto moratorium by supporting “the ability of farmers to make a practical choice between the conventional, organic and GM-crop production” (European Commission 2003a). As Franz Fischler, the European Commissioner of Agriculture, Rural Development, and Fisheries at that time stated in a speech about coexistence: “no form of agriculture, GMO or non-GMO, should be excluded in the EU” (European Commission 2003b). In fact, the concept was introduced during a period in which the United States, Canada, and Argentina had challenged the European Union over its de facto moratorium, arguing that it was an illegal ban without scientific foundation. This meant that the EU was under significant international pressure to open up for permitting GM crop cultivation. At the same, it was under significant local pressure to protect existing conventional and organic models of agriculture. The concept of coexistence therefore emerged in this context as a kind of compromise of “good intentions” in which the interests of all aimed to be simultaneously met without explicitly recognizing the actual incompatibilities between the different models and social practices. However, allowing freedom of choice for economic operators, farmers, and consumers concerning GM and non-GM products is only possible with a functioning traceability and labeling system. This means that the ethical commitment to “freedom of choice” taken by European authorities required traceability and labeling laws to come into being together with recommendations and guidelines for coexistence.

In order to implement the idea of coexistence between agricultural forms and crop types, the European Commission issued nonbinding recommendations on measures to be developed and put into practice by the Member States, following the subsidiarity principle. The focus of these recommendations was on practices to be implemented at the farm level. In these recommendations, a clear and significant distinction was made between the economic aspects of coexistence and the environmental and health aspects. This division reinforced a strict – but also contested – demarcation between risk assessment and risk management by separating aspects to be evaluated by experts (e.g., aspects concerning environmental, human, and animal health assessed by the European Food Safety Authority under Directive 2001/18/EC) and those relating to policy (e.g., including social or ethical dimensions). This saw the coexistence issue reduced to the quantification of potential economic losses from admixture and an individual monetary compensatory mechanism for the costs derived from the market-driven differentiation (and labeling) between GM and non-GM products. By issuing “science-based” technical measures to deal with coexistence, the European Commission strategy also implied that the political debate could be “technified.” Therefore, the political efforts towards coexistence were effectively devoted to designing technical measures to minimize the costs caused by the implementation of the labeling directive (which was at that time under preparation and approved in September 2003) “in a proportionate manner” so as to let the market operate “freely.” Liability was also exclusively focused on the economic aspects of coexistence. A trend towards individualization of the liability and redress scheme has been also promoted by the coexistence framework regarding the resolution of disputes in the European guidelines (Binimelis 2008).

These technical recommendations included: ensuring separation distances between GM and non-GM crops, thoroughly cleaning all agricultural machinery and transport vehicles, establishing independent drying and storage facilities for GM and non-GM crops, and avoiding similar dates of sowing between GM and non-GM crops, among others. Through the recommendation of these technical measures to ensure the separation of GM and non-GM crops, seeds and pollen, wider social debate on the acceptability, justifiability, or necessity of GMOs was reduced to a question of farmer’s individual choices, as if farmers acted independently from each other, from their networks of social relations, and from their own socioeconomic and socioecological contexts. Additional nonmarket based socioeconomic issues that are more difficult to quantify or incommensurable, such as the loss of trust among consumers or the consequences of the admixture of GMOs for a local variety, were never considered.

As a result, and despite the establishment of this framework for coexistence, the social controversy surrounding GMOs in Europe continued, and many Member State governments continued their opposition to new GMOs approvals (e.g., through the use of the so-called safeguard clause of Directive 2001/18) while an increasing number of regions declared themselves to be “GMO-free zones”. This situation of ongoing resistance and dissatisfaction led the European Commission to adopt a more flexible approach in 2010 (European Commission 2010), issuing new guidelines for the development of national coexistence measures. These guidelines allowed Member States more freedom in the design of their coexistence measures to take into greater consideration specific regional characteristics. For instance, it was acknowledged that many organic and conventional operators in the food sector were using a 0.1 % threshold instead of the set level of 0.9 %, which could create income loss for producers wanting to market their products as not stemming from GMOs or being GMO-free. The emphasis on “science-based” measures was also softened in the new guidelines. Importantly, the guidelines also opened the possibility to recognize GMO-free zones, which in fact challenged the foundational idea that GM crops could coexist alongside other forms of agriculture and placed enhanced idea on the importance of allowing for societal rather than individual choice over the agricultural system to be practiced.

Although these new guidelines allowed for a greater flexibility among the measures adopted by nation states, the authorization process for GMOs remained the same. This failed to account for the genuine challenges that implementing effective coexistence measures posed in practice and to address the ongoing questions concerning their ability to successfully control admixture as cases of contamination continued to mount. In 2015, a new Directive acknowledged some of these issues by allowing Member States to “opt-out” of the scope of a GMO cultivation authorization due, for example, to the “high cost, impracticability or impossibility of implementing coexistence measures due to specific geographical conditions (…), or the need to avoid GMO presence in other products” (Directive (EU) 2015/412).

Sources of Contamination

Agriculture is an open system. This makes the possibility of admixture between GM and non-GM crops to a certain extent unavoidable (Devos et al. 2009). Formally documented cases of contamination since 1997 are recorded in the online worldwide GM contamination register (see http://www.gmcontaminationregister.org), maintained by GeneWatch UK and Greenpeace. By the end of 2015, 434 incidents were recorded on this register (including various cases with unauthorized GM lines) although of course additional cases may occur but not be documented or reported. The registered cases of contamination show that the routes for admixture are often unclear. This is arguably because adventitious mixture or presence (meaning unintentional contamination with GM material) is possible at virtually all the different stages of the production chain. The most critical sources for this include (Marvier and Van Acker 2005):
  1. 1.

    The purchase and use of impure seeds (i.e., seeds that contain GM material)

  2. 2.

    Cross-fertilization of GM and non-GM crops due to pollen flow between neighboring fields

  3. 3.

    The occurrence of “volunteer” plants regenerating from seeds and/or vegetable plant parts from GM crops planted in previous seasons

  4. 4.

    A mixture of plant material from different crops in agricultural machinery during sowing, harvest, and/or postharvest operations (including the storage and transport systems)

  5. 5.

    Admixture during food and feed processing (including transport during these operations)

  6. 6.

    To a lesser extent, cross fertilization from certain sexually compatible wild or weedy relatives and/or feral plants


Policies in the Different Geographical Contexts (Europe Versus Other Countries/Regions)

Following the evolution of the positions of the European Commission and its Member States on the issue of coexistence, a variety of implementation strategies have been developed. While some countries have not adopted specific coexistence legislation (e.g., Croatia, Cyprus, Ireland, The Netherlands, Spain, or United Kingdom), other countries have adopted coexistence measures at the national (e.g., Czech Republic or Portugal) or regional level (Austria, Italy, or Finland) or issued a ban that is sometimes implemented along coexistence measures, which is the case of Germany. Furthermore, after the implementation of the aforementioned new EU Directive on GMOs (Directive [EU] 2015/412) in March 2015, 19 out of 28 countries also chose to opt out of cultivating the only currently approved GM event in Europe – maize MON 810 – in either all or part of their territories. The case of Spain is especially interesting here since it is the only European country currently growing a GM crop (MON810 Bt maize) at a commercial scale and still does not have a coexistence framework. Without a coexistence framework requiring the implementation of any measures to effectively avoid contamination, organic maize production has practically disappeared from areas in Spain with GM maize cultivation (Binimelis 2008).

In recent years, the need to develop guidelines and measures to allow for coexistence has also spread to other non-European countries, including countries leading the production of GMOs, such as the United States, Canada, and Brazil. As mentioned above, in Europe, the focus is mainly on the economic losses suffered by farmers in which the value of their crops is reduced by the unintended presence of GMOs. In the United States and Canada, coexistence practices – which are also mainly focused at the farm level – are not based on regulations or policy guidelines but rather on market arrangements and, in some cases, guidelines for coexistence practices are produced by the sector itself (Rizov and Rodríguez-Cerezo 2014). In these countries, the unintended presence of GMOs has often led to the filing of a class-action lawsuit due to allegations of losses linked to trade disruptions. Examples of such situations include the cases around Starlink, Libertylink, Oregon soft wheat, or the Viptera corn. In fact, these class actions have been characterized as “the front-line in a form of legal trench-warfare between opponents and proponents of GM crops” (Phillipson 2015). In the case of Brazil, the National Technical Commission on Biosafety established minimum distances between commercial cultivation of GM and non-GM maize that were incorporated in a resolution (Resolution No. 4 of August 16, 2007) and published a guide for the practical implementation of technical segregation measures in maize.

Conclusions: To What Extent Is Coexistence Possible?

The principle of coexistence aims to ensure that farmers are able to freely grow the crops and pursue the agricultural system that they choose – be it genetically engineered (GE), non-GE conventional, or organic. The idea of creating a framework for coexistence between crop types was introduced in 2002 in the European Union in order to facilitate the perceived right of farmers to choose and to respond to concerns regarding the admixture of GM with non-GM crops (organic or conventional). The framework developed involved establishing recommendations on technical measures to try and keep crops separated and reduced the significance of the issue to questions concerning monetary aspects for individuals. However, the issue remains unsettled and controversial, as both the foundations of the concept of coexistence and the specific measures to be applied have been highly contested for their applicability, comprehensiveness, and effectiveness. Indeed, coexistence itself has become a contentious notion, which although seeking to present a compromise position, in which the interests of various social actors are taken care of, fails to resolve previous conflicts related to the divergent political visions for the future of agriculture and the role that GMOs have to play in it. It also arguably creates new problems by both transforming a social debate into solely a matter of individual choice and also by individualizing its impacts, thereby weakening, isolating, and often dismissing the most vulnerable actants present in the agri-food networks involved (Binimelis 2008; Levidow and Boschert 2008).



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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rosa Binimelis
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Fern Wickson
    • 1
  • Amaranta Herrero
    • 1
  1. 1.GenØk Centre for BiosafetyTromsøNorway
  2. 2.University of Vic-Central University of CataloniaVicSpain