ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

13 October 2002


Contaminated seedstocks are currently illegal but a small technical committee of the European Union (The Standing Committee on Seeds) will soon be asked to approve a directive allowing GM contamination in conventional (non-GM) seed.

It is argued that setting thresholds - up to 0.3, 0.5 or 0.7% (depending on the plant variety) - is necessary for the sake of practicality as some level of contamination is inevitable. And the seed companies - largely owned by the gene giants - are already arguing on this basis for higher thresholds than those currently proposed.

But, as detailed in the report below, for the last 12 months Austria has been operating a "zero-tolerance" policy on GM contamination of seed purity. Only if no contamination is detected is a seed company allowed to  market its seeds in Austria, regardless of whether it's conventional or organic seed. Nor does the Austrian seed purity law distinguish between contamination with "authorised" GMOs and those not authorised for release - neither are permissable.

The Austrian policy has been working well and careful monitoring has thrown up none of the problems predicted by the biotech lobby. The report concludes that such an approach is both practical and effective, "Experience in the first year has confirmed that imposing the principle of zero tolerance does work in Europe."

The EU proposals, on the other hand, would give the green light for seed contamination. In a bag of beet, cotton or maize seed, one in every 200 seeds could be GM without informing the farmer. In a bag of soy seeds, more than one in every 150 could be contaminated - (0.7%).

This could add up to an unannounced commercial scale release of GMOs across Europe. No wonder that Gregory Conko, co-founder of AgBioWorld, recently boasted that if thresholds in seed can be established in law, it will shut up the anti-GM folks "for good".

Let's follow Austria's lead. Write to UK Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Minister, Michael Meacher.

For information on other actions you can take, contact Five Year Freeze:
+44 (0)20 7837 0642 or e-mail


No genetically contaminated seeds: Austrian Regulation leads EU way to Pure Seeds

Mag. Thomas Fertl, Greenpeace Austria,
Siebenbrunneng. 44 A-1050 Wien/Vienna, Österreich/Austria
Tel: ++43/1/5454580-24 Email:

The Austrian Government has already enacted a seed purity law prohibiting contamination of conventional seeds with genetically engineered (GE) varieties above the detection limit. In doing this it has taken the lead among the 15 member states of the European Union in applying the principle of „zero-tolerance‰ on contamination of seeds with genetically engineered organisms (GMO). What follows is a chronological account of how this seed law came into being and a review of how successful it is in practice.

Seed scandal 2001: Something must be done!

In May 2001 Greenpeace Austria published test results showing that maize seeds of the variety PR39D81 by Pioneer were contaminated by genetically modified organisms not authorised for release in Austria. Gradually it emerged that almost 180 tons of GE contaminated seeds, affecting an area under cultivation of around 6,000 hectares, had been released into the environment.1 About 2,000 hectares of it were eventually destroyed, the Austrian State paying o 2.67 million in compensation. i,ii

Threshold discussion

All this time the seed- and biotech corporation in question, Pioneer, had disobeyed a ruling to destroy the fields concerned, maintaining that GE contamination is unavoidable and calling for high tolerance thresholds as a solution. The Austrian Ministry of Agriculture followed this line of argumentation when, in October, it submitted a draft regulation on genetically engineered seeds which proposed a tolerance threshold of 0.5% for contamination with GMO authorised for release. A tolerance threshold of 0.1% was proposed for organic seeds and for contamination with unauthorised GMO. This proposal was met by a storm of protest, as the tolerance thresholds has been seen as far too high.2 An opinion poll commissioned by Greenpeace and carried out among farmers using conventional seeds showed that by far the majority rejected tolerance thresholds and asked for measures to avoid contamination instead.iii Much importance was given to the view of the Conference of Presidents of the Chambers of Agriculture (PRÄKO), the official body representing the interests of Austrian farmers, who requested that contamination not only in organic but also in conventional seeds, should not exceed the detection limit.

Solution: Regulation on GE Seed Contamination

Eventually, the Regulation on GE Seed Contamination came into effect on 1 January, 2002 (see appendix). This regulation states that every batch of seeds sold in Austria must be tested by the seed company (either producer or retailer) for contamination with GMO, applying specified sampling and testing methods.iv Only if no contamination was detected the company is allowed to put the seeds in the market. This regulation is applicable to both conventional and organic seeds without distinction, nor does it distinguish between contamination with authorised GMO and those not authorised for release.

Compliance with this regulation is monitored firstly within the framework of control measures for imported seed. Secondly, certificates of analyses are required and random samples are analysed within the framework of the seed authorisation proceedings for seeds produced in Austria. Furthermore the applicant has to confirm that he has taken appropriate measures to avoid GE contamination.

The authorities take action if contamination exceeding 0.1% is detected in test samples. Sanctions include seizure of seed and fines of up to o 14.500, and up to o 21.800 in case of recurrence. The 0.1% threshold for taking action is due to statistical variation in the testing methods applied for initial testing: If the seed tests in the initial tests conducted by the seed company show no contamination, this means that 95% of further tests will show results of between 0 and 0.1%.3 The testing methods are based on concepts developed by the international organizations OECD, ISTA and EU.v The costs for initial testing and quality management including GE avoidance measures are met by the seed company, those for control testing are met by the authorities.

Experiences confirm Austrian approach

The final results of sample testing for crops grown in 2002 have now been published. This is the first year in which the regulation has been in force. This year, samples have been taken of a total of 148 batches, 112 of which were maize samples (56 of them tested were Austrian produce, and 56 were imported batches), 31 soya bean samples (28 Austrian and 3 imported) and 5 swede oilseed rape samples (all imported). Contamination could not be detected in any of the samples! Additionally, the company records of 31 seed producers or retailers were Even the seed company Pioneer has now confirmed to its customers that the seeds it sells in Austria have been tested and no GE contamination has been detected.vii

Austrian seed production has also been controlled by field monitoring in order to combat seed contamination at the root of the problem. Samples of 12 maize and 8 soya bean seed batches intended for seed production were tested, all with negative results. One maize plant and two soya plants that were in the field identified as GMO were removed from the field.4,5
In light of these results the Austrian Minister of Agriculture, Wilhelm
Molterer, assesses the Regulation very positively. He has pointed out in particular that the production of maize seeds has climbed from 2,100 hectares in 1999 to 4,200 hectares in 2002 and that all this produce is now certified as GE-free by the Austrian Seed Certification Authority. The Austrian Regulation on GE seed contamination also has its weak points. If, for example, test controls done by the Seed Authority detect unapproved GMO, the authority does not take any action, so long as the 0.1-percent-limit is not exceeded. This is true even if the seed has not yet been sown in which case avoiding the release of these unassessed GMO into the environment would be very easy. Compared to the proposals by the EU Commission in this matter, however, it is an exemplary piece of legislation.

According to the EU proposals, contamination in seeds would not need to be labelled up to 0.3, 0.5 or 0.7% (depending on the plant variety). Furthermore it does not include any upper limit for contamination exceeding which the marketing of the seed would be illegal. The „purity requirement‰ laid down in the Austrian regulation on GE seed contamination is therefore an example to be followed by the EU. Experience in the first year has confirmed that imposing the principle of zero tolerance does work in Europe.

Prepared by Thomas Fertl, Greenpeace Austria (
Vienna, October 2002


1 Apart from variety PR39D81, two more maize varieties by Pioneer, Ribera and Monalisa, were also affected. Contamination was proved above all with the GE maize variety MON810, but with BT11 and BT176 as well. BT11 is approved for import into the EU, but must not be cultivated here. MON810 and BT 176 may not be imported into Austria due to national bans. The level of contamination was below 0.1% in some samples and between 0.1% and 0.5% in others. Batches with a contamination of more than 0.5% were also found but finally removed from the market before sowing.

2 The Austrian Seed Authority BFL detected GE contamination in 16 out of 230 maize samples (7%) in 2001, only about half of which (a total of just 4%) were contaminated above 0,1%. This means that 96% of the tested batches did not exceed the 0.1%-level, even though the focus of the control test was mainly on seeds imported from non-EU states where the danger of contamination is seen as specially high. (Source see reference i)

3 The threshold specified in the Regulation is therefore not 0.1, but -0- in the sense of not detectable applying the stipulated methods. The value 0.1 refers to the tolerance (LQL = Lower Quality Level) in follow-up and control tests and is consistent with the threshold value -0- in terms of methods and statistics.

4 The seed batches tested were maize from Canada, Chile, France and the US, soya from Austria, Canada and France. (Source see reference vi)

5 In 2000, all the basic seed batches for maize seed production used in Austria were thoroughly examined. In parts of four of the 337 samples examined, contamination with GMO authorised in the EU was detected in the scope of about 0.1%. As the results were available only after the sowing period, it was tried to purify the seed by identifying and removing GE-plants not belonging to the variety ("outcrosses") right in the field. This strategy seems to have been at least partly successful, as the harvested seed is contaminated to a lesser extent than the basic seed. In this context, it has also been proved that these so-called outcrosses produce considerably more pollen when compared to male components of the non-GE variety, i.e. they have a higher potential for cross-pollination. (Source see reference i)

6 The contact informations of the official in charge: DI Leopold Girsch, Landwirtschaftliche Untersuchungen und Forschung Wien (Agricultural Inspection Service and Research Centre Vienna, former "BFL - Bundesanstalt und Forschungszentrum für Landwirtschaft"), Spargelfeldstrasse 191, A-1226 Wien, Postfach 400, AUSTRIA  Tel. 0043/1/73216-4500
Impressum: Greenpeace Österreich, Siebenbrunnengasse 44, 1050 Wien
Tel 01/5454580, Fax 01/5454580-98, Internet, Email:

ngin bulletin archive