Concepts of GMO-free Environmentally Sensitive Areas

by Josef Hoppichler, Federal Institute for Less-Favoured and Mountainous Areas, Vienna

This paper summarizes a two-part study dealing with concepts of GMO-free environmentally sensitive areas1 which was conducted on behalf of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Consumer Protection. The first part outlines the basic arguments and frameworks concerning GMO-free areas from a scientific and legal point of view and was finished in December 1998. The second part deals with the empirical results of a survey of experts' opinions about GMO-free areas and relates to different problems around the deliberate release of GMOs and the natural or/and agricultural environment (including organic farming). The empirical study was finished in August 1999. Since both parts of the study reflect the state of discussion of 1998/99, this summary includes some new relevant aspects and developments in footnotes.


1. Framework and concepts of GMO-free environmentally sensitive areas

1.1 Main results

In evaluating the different aspects of the release and placing on the market of GMOs and in assessing the current international agenda concerning the protection of biodiversity and the different efforts to define environmental sensitivity, there are many open questions about the release of GMOs in special areas of protection. If we accept the hypothesis that there is a need for the preservation of "natural" biodiversity resulting from natural evolution and that this evolution as a common heritage is essential for future human development; and if we cannot provide scientific evidence that the direct and indirect effects of GMOs and their artificial gene constructs are without harm to the long-term development of natural environments, we should at least think of a GMO-free demarcation of the following areas:

  1. protected areas for the preservation of biodiversity (e.g. Natura 2000 network) and adjoining areas;
  2. areas for organic farming, to secure at least partially GMO-free agricultural production (as far as possible) and to guarantee GMO-free organic seed breeding and the propagation of such seeds, as well as to provide an alternative technological option;
  3. areas for the enhanced in-situ (on-farm) preservation of plant-genetic resources under GMO-free conditions;
  4. development or "transition" areas for sustainable agricultural development - similarly defined as in UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme (especially in the Statutory Framework of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves) to contribute to the conservation of landscapes, ecosystems, species and genetic variation and to foster economic and human development which is socio-culturally and ecologically sustainable;
  5. mountain areas, whose ecological sensitivity merits special consideration - following Agenda 21, Chapter 13 (Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development).

Such GMO-free areas would have to cover relatively large biogeographical regions to be effective in the long-term in avoiding future gene transfer to a large extent.

1.2 The legal framework

In the introductory chapters, the study describes the legal framework in connection with the possible implications of Article 13 (5) of Council Directive 90/220/EEC. This Article refers to the placing on the market of GMOs, taking into account "specific conditions of use and the environments and/or geographical areas stipulated in these conditions".2 If it is generally accepted that Directive 90/220 (based on Article 95 (ex 100a) of the EC Treaty) aims at both objectives on an equal level: protection of human health and of the environment, as well as dissolving disparity between the rules of Member States and facilitating the functioning of the common market; and if Directive 90/220 is to integrate the precautionary principle as it is characterised in Article 174 (ex Article 130r), then besides "the available scientific and technical data" the Community should also take into account "environmental conditions in the various regions of the Community; the potential benefits and costs of action or lack of action; the economic and social development of the Community as a whole and the balanced development of its regions."3

Since Directive 90/220 provides for a special type of product-based Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and since one of its main objectives is to preserve biodiversity, it also has to be evaluated within the context of other environmental directives.4 Interestingly, Council Directive 97/11/EC on the assessment of the effects of certain public and private projects on the environment incorporates a strong regional approach with special reference to the "environmental sensitivity of geographical areas" (ANNEX III in connection with Article 4 (3) - see below). There are also some strong connections with the Natura 2000 directives (Habitats and Birds Directive). Especially in Council Directive 92/43/EC on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (Article 6) it is stated that "Member States shall take appropriate steps to avoid, in the special areas of conservation, the deterioration of natural habitats" and that "any plan or project … likely to have a significant effect thereon … shall be subject to appropriate assessment of its implications for the site in view of the site's conservation objectives". Additionally, "the competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public." According to DG XI's Natura 2000 newsletter, this aims to ensure that a site is not damaged until there has been a careful balancing of nature conservation and opposing interests. "The trigger for applying these safeguards is a likelihood that a plan or project will have a significant effect on the site concerned." (DG XI's Nature Newsletter, Issue 2, Dec. 1996). So there seem to be obvious contradictions to the possible implementation of Directive 90/220, and the relationship between the preservation of biodiversity and the consequences of unrestricted releases of GMOs into the environment remains to be clarified.

1.3 Approaches to defining environmentally sensitive areas

The terms "environmental sensitivity" or "fragile ecosystems" are used quite often in connection with discussions on special environmental conditions, not only within the EU but also globally. This mainly reflects efforts to describe a general imbalance between the environmental capacity and economic activities of a region and to raise political awareness of regional environmental problems. On the European level, besides the directives mentioned above, environmental sensitivity plays an important role in discussions about the problems of road transport,5 the impact of tourism, the quality of water and seas (e.g. the Baltic Sea Area), but also in the context of environmental programs as part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).6

The best definition of "environmental sensitivity of geographical areas" from a legal point of view is to be found in the EIA Directive, 97/11/EC. Concerning certain case-by-case examinations or the determination of certain thresholds or criteria (Article 4 - Annex III), such areas are characterized as wetlands, coastal zones, mountain and forest areas, nature reserves and parks, areas classified or protected under Member States' legislation, special protection areas of the Natura 2000 network, areas in which the environmental quality standards laid down in Community legislation have already been exceeded, densely populated areas and landscapes of historical, cultural or archaeological significance.7

1.4 The uncertainty of the risks of GMOs

The study outlines the causes of danger to biodiversity through modern agricultural practices. It refers to direct and indirect effects of agricultural technology on biodiversity and demonstrates in a historical overview how modern agricultural techniques have caused massive genetic erosion and threatened diverse ecosystems.

In the context of the use of GMOs in agriculture, the impact on biodiversity may be twofold: On the one hand there are possibilities of direct risks which can be assessed within some limits according to the status of science and technology (e.g. crosspollination, effects on non-target organisms). But there still remains an area of uncertainty as even the best and most modern scientific methods cannot provide us with the means to predict ecological long-term effects and/or implications for human health. So it is beyond the competence of the scientific system to answer such a question (SCHOMBERG 1998).8 On the other hand there may also be a range of indirect effects through the change of agricultural production systems and management methods (e.g. combination with pesticide strategies; mono-cropping or expansion of the limits of crop rotation; more regional and operational specialisation and concentration with cumulating environmental problems). But these indirect effects seem to be causally related to a single technique only in rare cases. Most times this possible negative environmental impact is translated through socio-economic processes like the concentration of enterprises, the monopolization of the seed industry or of the supply of means of production, the destruction of local infrastructure, etc. (see ALTIERI 1998).9 Especially in view of these possible indirect effects of modern biotechnology in agriculture there is a need for alternative technological options and structures (e.g. organic farming).
In connection with the uncertainty in the environmental risk assessment of releasing GMOs to the environment, two expert analyses were conducted. The appraisal by PASCHER/GOLLMANN (1998a) outlines limits of prognosis of ecological behaviour of plants with special reference to introgressive hybridisation. It is pointed out that our knowledge of evolutionary relationships and genetic compatibility, especially of grasses, is too limited to allow predictions on the consequences of releases. Since most of the agricultural areas in the alpine regions are meadows or pastures, "the ecological impact of transgenic grasses may be pervasive" (see PASCHER/GOLLMANN 1998b). The analysis by MÜLLER (1998) demonstrates in a more general and theoretical context that the contamination of natural gene pools through synthetic genes is incalculable in principle in predictive risk assessment.

It may well be the case that environmentally sensitive areas like mountain regions have to carry higher technology risks since these areas have a higher potential for environmental change (e.g. soil erosion, landslides and avalanches, rapid loss of habitat diversity), but there is not usually a stringent causality.10 At the same time, conceptualising environmentally sensitive areas in relation to the release of GMOs could also mean counterbalancing possible risks.11

There is an example of the geographically limited placing on the market of GMOs in the US. According to the rules on deregulation, Bt corn may be used as seed in the Southern States only in very limited quantities.12 The restriction is justified with the fact that the corn earworm/bollworm (CEW) causes multiple damage: to corn as well as to cotton and vegetable plants. In cotton regions the resistance mechanism should therefore not be additionally supported by the cultivation of corn. Although the basis of argumentation is causal, the resulting demarcation is rather rough and general. However, this crop-specific restriction may at the same time strengthen mono-cropping tendencies - a side-effect with an indirect negative environmental impact.

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