Concepts of GMO-free Environmentally Sensitive Areas

1.5 Concepts and strategies for GMO-free environmentally sensitive areas

1.5.1 Protected areas

The study outlines in detail the (legally binding) conditions of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), especially with regard to the in-situ conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources (Article 8 of the CBD). It deals with basic strategies for protected areas and describes the status of negotiations on the so-called "Biosafety Protocol".13 Furthermore, the requirements for the consideration of the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities are discussed. Within the European context, too, the participation and involvement of local communities is crucial for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.14 Nowadays, it is commonly accepted in expert discussions that the participation of local communities is the most relevant point for the successful preservation of biodiversity. Thus, as the Natura 2000 network is an important element of European strategies, the term "opinion of the common public" has been included in the Habitat Directive.

Concepts of GMO-free ecologically sensitive areas have to be seen in the context of preserving biodiversity. Special areas of nature protection like the Natura 2000 network and adjoining areas depend upon special agricultural management systems which are in many respects in contradiction to the context of GMO farming. From this point of view, public participation and the involvement of local communities could be one crucial element in solving problems in connection with possible releases of GMOs and their potential impact on biodiversity. But this participatory process is also highly relevant in the context of defining GMO-free areas.15

1.5.2 In-situ (on-farm) conservation of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture16

Activities to protect agricultural genetic resources have to be seen in the context of the so-called FAO Global System. The FAO established the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources (CPGR),17 which was renamed in 1995 to Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA). This Commission coordinates, oversees and monitors the development of the Global System for the Conservation and Utilization of PGR; activities include the (non-binding) International Undertaking (IU), the so-called Global Plan of Action (which defines in-situ conservation and/or on-farm management of PGR as leading priority activities), as well as the development of an international network of in-situ conservation areas and crop-related networks, in addition to an existing international network of ex-situ conservation.

Taking this FAO Global System as a starting point, the on-going implementation activities for PGR at European and national level are discussed (see Report on the 1998 European PGRFA Symposium). The disappearance of small seed companies and the erosion of the European genetic heritage is recent history. But protecting PGR, including their wild relatives in centres of origin or centres of diversity, in situ and managing the (re-)use of PGR and so-called land races or "folk varieties" on farm is essential for maintaining diversity and guaranteeing long-term food security. Additionally, special attention is paid to activities of private initiatives and so-called grassroots movements. Globally, and also in Austria, genetic erosion has led to reactions in the form of popular movements which try to save vanishing seeds and which are the main actors in in-situ (on-farm) conservation of PGR (see BERG 1996).

Especially for Austria, the in-situ conservation of herbs and grasses which grow in the alpine grasslands and pastures is of great importance. Particularly within the alpine regions there is a highly differentiated structure of ecological systems with different climatic conditions, land forms and soils. But there are large gaps of knowledge concerning the dynamics of the change of biodiversity and its endangerment in the alpine region (BUCHGRABER/SOBOTIK 1995; also see CERNUSCA et al.).

Small-scale agriculture, present mainly in disadvantaged and mountainous regions (also in Europe) or due to an orientation toward self-sufficiency, has made a substantial contribution to preserving plant genetic resources. Obviously, small-scale agriculture in these areas (including the Austrian mountain regions in particular) can be useful for the re-establishment of preservation on farm and for the improvement and development of Genetic Resources (see HAMMER 1998).

For example, the following points would have to be considered additionally to the measures suggested in the context of the Austrian biodiversity strategy and additionally to the development of a regional concept for the in-situ (on-farm) conservation of Genetic Resources:

  • creation of a "protected area" for the exchange of and small-scale trade in Plant Genetic Resources in order to achieve harmonization with the laws regulating seed markets;
  • improved support schemes for the utilization of Genetic Resources in the context of Agro-environmental programs;
  • project-related support of the cultivation of PGR, including scientific monitoring;
  • intensified evaluation of existing PGR, in particular with the perspective of (re-) utilization in less-favoured areas and in regional markets;
  • supporting breeding and improvement measures for PGR to enhance their economic utilization;
  • using local diversity for appropriate breeding, multiplying and seed propagation;
  • improving communication and exchange of information (material, knowledge, information) within and among different groups of actors (science, ex-situ conservation, breeders, farmers and local communities);
  • documenting farmers' knowledge, the knowledge of local communities, information on varieties and plant traits of interest in on-farm management;
  • involvement of stakeholders with special reference to the role of [schweres foul!] farmwomen and to women's traditional responsibility in seed breeding and utilization.

1.5.3 Organic farming as an alternative, GMO-free technological option

On the basis of the principles of organic agriculture (system integration, precaution and risk avoidance, reversibility, see IFOAM Basic Standards18), GMOs are not used in organic agriculture and its products. The clear and European-wide positioning of the organic movement together with the support of consumer rights associations caused the European Parliament to include the following passage, reflecting the position of the organic agriculture movements, in its Report on amending the European Union's Council Regulation (EEC) 2092/91 on organic production: "Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products derived therefrom are not compatible with the organic production method; in order to maintain consumer confidence in organic production, genetically modified organisms, parts thereof and products derived therefrom should not be used in products labelled as from organic production."19

As multiple releases and the marketing of GMOs are irreversible processes, one must assume that due to natural gene transfer (generative, introgressive and horizontal) and due to technical impurities (in particular connected with processing), products of organic agriculture will also contain GMOs even if they are produced strictly on the basis of organic guidelines. As a result, organic products will have to carry a relatively high burden of contamination with GMOs in the long term.

So if organic farming, which means GM-free production by definition, is going to continue and if it is to meet consumers' expectations and preferences in the long term, there is a strong need for additional protective measures for this production system. Particularly, defined areas are required which can be used to build up and maintain a separate, GM-free branch of seed breeding and propagation.

As long as there are uncertainties in the prediction of the ecological long-term effects of GMO production systems, there is also a strong argument for supporting and developing an alternative option of agricultural technology to counterbalance unexpected risks.

Austria has about 19,000 farmholdings producing according to organic standards and cultivating about 300,000 ha UAA (Utilized Agricultural Area - excluding alpine pastures). This represents a proportion of 8% of all farms and about 9% of national UAA. In regional terms, organic farming is concentrated in the mountainous and alpine areas in western and southern Austria where alpine grassland and pastures prevail (mainly in the Federal Provinces of Salzburg, Tyrol and Styria). 86% of all organic enterprises are at the same time defined as operating in mountainous areas, so within the sector of mountain farming, organics already represents a proportion of 20%. Especially in the mountainous areas of Austria (defined according to Regulation (EEC) No. 950/97), organic agriculture is relatively widespread. Broken down by communities, 35% of all communities in Austria have a higher proportion than 10% of UAA operated organically.

In the context of preservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in combination with agricultural production, which is an essential basis of cultural landscapes in Europe, organic farming could play an important role. As organic farming is part of the Austrian agro-environmental programme, its impact on biodiversity has been extensively evaluated. One of the main conclusions was that "using organic cultivation methods" together with the "non-application of specific yield-enhancing means of production" and "upkeeping ecologically valuable areas" had strong effects on ensuring and enhancing species diversity (BLÜMEL et al. 1996).

If it is generally accepted that, according to EU-Regulation 2092/91, GMOs and their products are not compatible with the organic production method, and if European society wants continued production and development of organic agricultural and food systems as a GM-free standard, there is a strong need for special areas of protection

  • to avoid GMO contamination of organic seed breeding and multiplying,
  • to support efforts to protect and preserve biodiversity within organic agricultural systems,
  • to create alternative technological systems or paths to compensate possible failures of conventional farming, and
  • to have some mechanism of counterbalancing unexpected risks.

1.5.4 Transition areas modelled on Biosphere Reserves -an example of GMO-free, sustainable development

Besides the FAO and the Environmental Program of the United Nations (UNEP), it is above all the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) which has for several decades made important contributions to the preservation of biodiversity. In 1968, the UNESCO Conference on the Conservation and Rational Use of the Biosphere was the first major intergovernmental meeting to examine these issues, and it gave rise to the launching of the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme. The Biosphere Reserve concept was a key component for achieving MAB's objective to strike a balance between the apparently conflicting goals of conserving biodiversity, promoting economic and social development and maintaining associated cultural values (see UNESCO 1998).

The name "Biosphere Reserve" was chosen in the early 1970s to select special experimental sites. Biosphere Reserves are areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystems which collectively constitute a World Network.20 At present, Biosphere Reserves consist of a core area, a buffer zone and a transition area, and only the core area requires legal protection. A number of Biosphere Reserves simultaneously encompass areas protected under other systems (such as national parks or nature reserves) and other internationally recognized sites (such as World Heritage or Ramsar wetland sites). With regard to GMO-free areas, transition zones would be of particular interest as examples of sustainable regional development.

After the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (UNCED 1992) and in accordance with recent activities (Agenda 21, the Conventions on Biological Diversity, Climate Change and Desertification) there was a need for practical examples integrating the ideas and objectives of sustainable development. This also led to a change in the strategies for Biosphere reserves. In 1995, the International Conference on Biosphere Reserves (held in Seville, Spain) confirmed that Biosphere Reserves indeed provide such examples of integrated sustainable development (the Seville Strategy). Biosphere Reserves therefore have a new role to play at the global level. This means that the network of Biosphere Reserves is no longer exclusively a network of protected areas but has been changed into an instrument of area and regional planning as well as of sustainable development.21 According to the Seville Strategy the main objectives are (in short):

  • to use Biosphere Reserves (BRs) to conserve natural and cultural diversity;
    * to improve the coverage of natural and cultural biodiversity (e.g. by promoting a comprehensive approach to biogeographical classification including vulnerability analysis - or by giving special attention to fragmented habitats, threatened ecosystems, and fragile and vulnerable environments, both natural and cultural);
    * to integrate BRs into conservation planning (e.g. by integrating BRs in national strategies of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use - or by using BRs for in-situ conservation of genetic resources including cultivated and domesticated species);
  • to utilize BRs as models of land management and sustainable development;
    * to secure the support and involvement of local people;
    * to ensure better harmonization and interaction among the different BR zones (core zone, buffer zone, transition area);
    * to integrate BRs into regional planning;
  •  to use BRs for research, monitoring, education and training.

Since the implementation process of Biosphere Reserves has been handled rather stringently in the past, it is not clear whether the new strategies will be convertible to concepts of GMO-free areas. Up until now, especially in industrialized countries, Biosphere Reserves have only covered small areas, which would not meet the requirements for large, GMO-free biogeographical regions. But at the same time the new concepts and strategies of Biosphere Reserves state that there is a need

  • to recognize environmental sensitivity and/or fragile ecosystems whose stability can be ensured by sustainable management processes;
  • to establish larger protected areas which are not only designed for the in-situ conservation of "natural" biodiversity but also for "cultural" biodiversity (see in-situ (on-farm) conservation of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture);
  • to be aware that, in order to be successful, the conservation of biodiversity cannot be separated from cultural diversity and the involvement of local people and communities;
  • to create model regions which give impulses for biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.
  • Sustainable development, especially under the dynamics of industrialized society, is not given and fixed per se, but needs a space of experimentation in order to be researched and adjusted to prevailing social and economic conditions. Models are required to develop alternative paths of technology development.22

1.5.5 The requirements of Agenda 21 - Chapter 13, "Managing Fragile Ecosystems: Sustainable Mountain Development"

Within the framework of the UNCED process and in particular within Agenda 21, the far-reaching programme for sustainable development, the special environmental and social problems of mountain areas were recognized for the first time at an official international level. Especially Chapter 13 deals with the environmental sensitivity of mountain areas and the need for their sustainable development. Within the introductory paragraphs it is stated that mountain areas as a major ecosystem represent the complex and interrelated ecology of our planet and that at the same time mountain environments are essential to the survival of the global ecosystem. These areas are threatened by rapid change. "They are susceptible to accelerated soil erosion, landslides and rapid loss of habitat and genetic diversity…. most global mountain areas are experiencing environmental degradation. Hence, the proper management of mountain resources and socio-economic development of the people deserves immediate action."

Furthermore, mountain areas represent a very important part of global biodiversity and are home to many endangered species. Although these areas are not usually the richest regions in terms of biodiversity, they are characterized by a special vulnerability. "Because the ecosystems are relatively barren, native species tend to require large tracts of continuous ecosystem for survival and regeneration. As a result, pressure on the size and continuity of the ecosystem habitat can have significant detrimental effects on the continued existence of native species" (OECD 1998). With regard to agriculture, mountain areas are often centres of origin or centres of diversity of Plant Genetic Resources as they represent diverse environmental conditions in the context of the traditionally diverse agricultural demands of their inhabitants.

  • Concerning the key measures to be taken, Agenda 21/Chapter 13 calls for action to improve our knowledge of mountain ecosystems, to foster integrated watershed development and to create alternative livelihood opportunities for mountain peoples. However, at international level, programmes lack approaches for integrating mountain development, and at country level, government agencies and legislation rarely deal with mountain issues in a comprehensive way (see FAO 1997, see McNEELY 1995). As for selected future priorities in dealing with the problems of mountain areas, they should be oriented towards the following issues (see UNCSD 1997):
  • recognizing the special status of mountain areas (e.g. formulating national mountain development plans as part of general development plans);
  • stimulating investment in mountain development and conservation;
  • facilitating a clearer understanding of resource flows;
  • ensuring greater empowerment, equity and equality of women and recognizing their status;
  • recognizing mountain areas as valuable sites for preserving cultural integrity and conserving biological diversity (e.g. more concerted action is needed to address these increasingly important areas of concern).

As for Central Europe, the framework of Agenda 21/Chapter 13 was to some extend integrated in the so called Convention on the protection of the Alps (Alpine Convention). This Convention is approved also on behalf of the European Community. Although the Alpine Convention refers to the principle of prevention and the 'polluter pays` principle, it is formulated in a very general way and it only constitutes a framework for the preservation and protection of the Alps. More details had been elaborated within the different protocols based on the Alpine Convention, which are not yet signed by all Contracting Parties.

Dealing with environmental problems of GMO releases, there are a lot of activities in the context and follow up of the Alpine Convention, especially activities from NGOs like the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA). Arguing that mistakes in the cultivation do have much faster and more severe consequences in mountainous areas compared to the plains and require faster corrections and a higher degree of precaution, and as most human interventions and actions in the Alps have to be made more careful and gentle and considering present technological activities and the future potential of technical intervention, CIPRA took a critical position to the releases of GMOs in the Alps. Consequently, CIPRA has in February 1998 adopted a resolution on the establishment and preservation of "GMO-free Alps". It asks for a GMO-free area covering the entire Alps and refuses insular-solutions, such as high-alpine areas or certain territories (CIPRA 1998).


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