Managing the Production of Conventional, GM & Organic Crops
The ability to produce conventional, GM or organic crops is important to all farmers, regardless of which option they choose. While farmers are quite capable of managing production on their farms, the transportation and international trade of bulk grain commodities provide greater challenges. This is especially the case when Canada’s traditional grain export markets express a zero tolerance for the presence of GM crops.
Zero tolerance within agriculture commodity transportation and trade is not easily come by. An excellent example of this is the challenge that the Canadian flax industry has had to deal with following the detection of GM flax in 2009. The GM flax variety was removed from production in 2001, yet very small amounts remained in flax production, which ended up costing the Canadian flax industry millions of dollars as they had to ensure that GM flax was completely removed from all flax exports to Europe.
The key to successful production, transportation and trade of crops is to have allowances for a wide variety of things. For example, certified seed that is planted by farmers can have up to one-quarter of one percent (0.25%) of that certified seed be from other crop varieties. This could mean that a sample of certified barley seed could have 0.25% of oats, or canola or flax. Even the seed that starts the whole process is not 100% pure, so expecting that the crop be produced, transported and exported without gaining a single seed from another source is unrealistic.
Crop production starts with low levels of variety comingling, however, the coexistence of all varieties increases along the supply chain, particularly in transportation. When grain is shipped in railcars, railcars are not emptied and cleaned of all the grain when they are unloaded, so small amounts of the previous shipment remain. The same is true when grain is loaded on boats, small amounts of the previous cargo commingle with the new shipment. Due to the commingling of commodities in transport containers, a shipment of organic grain can arrive in another country and test positive for GM ingredients, which are entirely due to shipping circumstances.
Coexistence of crop varieties, particularly with GM varieties, is an increasing problem for agriculture. What is happening more frequently is that GM commodities are being detected in non-GM shipments, resulting in the shipment being rejected and the importing country then stops importing all products from the exporting country until a solution is implemented. In the case of Canadian flax, Europe would not allow Canada to export flax to Europe for 3 months. Presently in the United States, there are several lawsuits underway regarding China’s rejection of American corn exports due to detection of a new GM corn variety that is not yet approved in China.
A global solution to the low-level presence of commingled crop varieties is urgently needed. A conference is being held this November in Amsterdam on this very topic. Hopefully, solutions to this challenge can be identified so that the entire grain production and handling industries are not forced to comply with zero tolerance levels that are completely unrealistic expectations.