Concepts of GMO-free Environmentally Sensitive Areas

2. Results of a survey of experts' opinions about GMO-free environmentally sensitive areas

In order to evaluate the different conceptual frameworks of GMO-free environmentally sensitive areas and to assess the profile of opinions of people who may be confronted professionally with problems and possible environmental effects of the release of GMOs (especially at local level), a survey was conducted on the basis of the framework outlined in chapter 1. The main focal points of the survey were:

  • the relationship between the release of GMOs and the requirements of nature preservation (especially concerning the Natura 2000 network);
  • public involvement in decision making;
  • possible (indirect) effects on agriculture in environmentally sensitive areas;
  • the requirements of GMO-free production in organic farming;
  • ensuring GMO-free in-situ (on-farm) conservation of Plant Genetic Resources;
  • evaluating possibilities of defining alpine and mountain regions as GMO-free areas;
  • problems of implementation in the context of defining GMO-free areas.

The main target groups of this survey were competent persons in agricultural administration (at the level of the Federal Provinces and the regional Chambers of Agriculture), persons in environmental and/or nature protection administration23 (including the administration of protected areas), teachers at agricultural schools (mainly plant breeding), researchers and scientists (biology, technology assessment, biotechnology), environmental NGOs (environment and nature protection), competent persons within the administration of organic farming (organic farmers' associations, extension service, controlling institutions), politicians (with responsibilities and activities in environment and nature protection at Federal Province level), persons responsible for consumer affairs (Chamber of Labour) and food safety.24

A questionnaire was distributed among 268 experts, who were at the same time personally contacted by phone. After receiving general information, they were asked for their personal opinion (not the opinion of their respective administrative or political institutions). 152 persons responded. The majority of the respondents had a critical view of genetic engineering. 67% defined themselves as critical or very critical towards its agricultural application. Only 14% were in favour of the technology and 19% of the experts defined themselves as slightly critical.

Figure 1:

The main results:

  • The relationship between protected areas and the application of genetic engineering in agriculture needs to be clarified. 75% of the responding experts think that the use of GMOs causes a significant disturbance in areas of nature protection. They call for a ban on releasing GMOs to areas of nature protection and adjoining areas.
  • The concept of defining "large, GMO-free ecologically sensitive areas (e.g. the size of an Austrian Federal Province)" was supported by the majority of the experts (73%). They are relatively convinced that this concept could be argued within the framework of EU regulations. However, some of the agricultural administration staff and some groups of scientists were strongly opposed to this idea.
  • The idea of defining the whole mountainous and alpine region of Austria as a "GMO-free Biosphere Reserve" with the following declared objectives:
  • * to establish a model region for an alternative path of technological development in agriculture;
  • * to implement sustainable agricultural development in combination with nature conservation;
  • * to protect mountain and water resources by extensive land use;
  • * and to create an area for counterbalancing and regeneration in case of unforseeable negative developments caused by genetic engineering;

was rated as a good or very good idea by 78% of the experts. The concept of "GMO-free Alps as a Biosphere Reserve" met with even greater acceptance than the abstract notion of "large, GMO-free ecologically sensitive areas". (Only experts in the field of biotechnology and persons very much in favour of biotechnology disagreed.) However, the response regarding the chances of implementing this concept within the EU framework was not very conclusive since most experts ticked the middle of the rating scale.

Figure 2:

  • There are great deficits in relation to the needs of organic farming. 89% of the respondents called for GMO-free areas for breeding and propagating organic seeds.
  • As main strategies for assisting organic farming in coping with the problems of genetic engineering, the experts recommend to support GMO-free production through agricultural environmental programs (60%) and through regional food processing and marketing structures (60%), followed by defining GMO-free areas for seed breeding and multiplying (57%) and demarcation of "large, GMO-free ecologically sensitive areas" (also 57%). In response to the question as to who should bear the additional costs of analyses to ensure freedom from GMOs, 42% of the experts tend towards the "polluter pays" principle and claiming compensation from the seed industry. Only experts in the field of organic farming favour the more realistic scenario of refunding from public budgets (66%) (all percentages multiple responses) (see Table 1).
  • The great majority of experts are of the opinion that the in-situ conservation and on-farm management of Plant Genetic Resources should be GMO-free.

Tabel 1: Recommendations of strategies for assisting organic farming in coping with problems of genetic engineering (multiple responses)

 

(responding experts n=150)
Strategies for assisting
organic farming
num.
of
answ.
% of answers
% of responding persons
Total Organic. **n=15 Agricult. ***n=41
GE-free production - supported through ÖPUL*

95

14,7

62,5

73,3

46,3

GE-free prod.-supported through regional marketing

91

14,1

59,9

66,7

51,2

With regard to regions:

 

 

 

 

 

large, GMO-free areas (e.g. the size of Federal Province)

87

13,4

57,2

86,7

36,6

GMO-free areas for breeding and propagating

86

13,3

56,6

73,3

39,0

GMO-free areas with >10% proportion organic agric.

68

 

10,5

44,7

80,0

24,4

With regard to costs:

 

 

 

 

 

Seed industry has to pay for costs of analyses

64

9,9

42,1

26,7

31,7

Public budgets have to pay for costs of analyses

41

6,3

27,0

66,7

22,0

Other strategies:

 

 

 

 

 

Legal administered labeling, (seems to be enough)

39

6,0

25,7

13,3

36,6

Organic farmers assoc. should conduct test cases

28

4,3

18,4

13,3

14,6

Other strategies

14

2,2

9,2

20,0

4,9

TOTAL

647

100

425,7

547

339


* Austrian Programme on an Environmentally sound and Sustainable Agriculture (Agro-environmental progamme)
** Organic = Organic farmers associations
*** Agricult. = Agricultural administration

During the design of the study and as a result of some face-to-face expert interviews it became obvious that the discussion on deliberate release and placing on the market of GMOs is overlayed by a basic conflict on property rights: whether people who are against deliberate releases and GM foods are entitled to the genetic integrity of their "natural" environment or whether scientists and industry who are in favour of genetic engineering have the right to impose the burden of GMOs on the environment, regardless of obvious evidence of environmental damage.


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