WASHINGTON, March 13, 2014 -- The increased production of genetically modified crops around the world has led to a higher number of incidents of low levels of GMOs being detected in traded food and feed, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The incidents have led to trade disruptions between countries with shipments of crops being blocked by importing countries and destroyed or returned to the nation of origin.

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.

Some findings:

-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;
-26 countries blocked imports after finding traces of GMOs;
-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. Still, FAO decided to conduct the survey because the resulting trade disruptions may be costly, she said.

The trace amounts of GM crops become mixed with non-GM food and feed crops by accident during field production, as sometimes happens when a field trial of a GM crop is grown near a non-GM crop, or in processing, packing, storage or transportation.

Since there is no international agreement defining or quantifying “low level,” the interpretation varies from country to country. In many countries it is interpreted as any level at which detection is possible, 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.

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

Clarke said that while testing technology has become more sensitive, 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.”

Countries also asked FAO for help in assessing whether GM crops are safe to eat, she said. To help them out, she said FAO has 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/.

The survey also found that among the respondents, 17 countries had no food safety, feed safety or environmental regulations on GM crops, and 55 countries have zero-tolerance policies for unauthorized GM crops.

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.

The survey results will be discussed at a technical consultation organized by FAO to be held in Rome March 20-21 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.


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