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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 47 - January 2006   
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GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS
Title  The reality in the field

Much of the ‘militant’ opposition to GMOs has focused on the impact of transgenic crops on other agricultural productions and on the natural botanical environment. This raises the all-important question of the tools available to prevent this genetic contamination in the field. RTD info takes a close look at the European SIGMEA project, leading research investigating a very complex issue.

Study of colza pollen dispersion in a circular field measuring 105 metres in diameter with a central plot of phosphinotricine-resistant transgenic colza measuring 9 metres in diameter. © INRA/Michel Renard
Study of colza pollen dispersion in a circular field measuring 105 metres in diameter with a central plot of phosphinotricine-resistant transgenic colza measuring 9 metres in diameter.
© INRA/Michel Renard
There are many possible strategies for minimising gene flows. Pollen traps or barriers could be erected on the edge of fields, or the effective isolation distances defined. Another possibility is to co-cultivate only those varieties whose flowering seasons do not coincide, thereby preventing GMO pollen from fertilising non-GMO pistils. Particular timetable strategies for the sowing of seeds are needed for the latter solution. However, that still leaves the question of deciding which solution is best for which site.

To study coexistence in the field, researchers on the SIGMEA project are drawing in particular on the impressive quantity of experimental data already produced by European gene flow research. “That is why we are working with 44 partners from 12 European countries, which means almost all the groups that have studied these questions on our continent,” explains Jeremy Sweet of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in the United Kingdom, the SIGMEA administrative coordinator. “This will enable us to compile a kind of super European database.” The EU is supporting the project to the tune of €2.5 million.

Studies have already been carried out on many subjects, such as the distance travelled by pollen, effects on related plants, strategies to reduce pollen flows, etc. Researchers will also be looking at work carried out in Australia, Canada and the United States – although these have very different agricultural systems to our own and their results do not therefore always lend themselves to extrapolation. 

Modelling gene flows
This existing body of data, supplemented by the results of new field studies, will be used to develop gene flow models dependent on a number of factors, most important of which is the nature of the crops themselves. The emphasis will be on colza and maize, and to a lesser extent beetroot and potatoes.  

The type of farm is another important factor. “There is a world of difference between the vast farms you find in Eastern Germany or the Beauce region of France and the tiny plots, on average less than a hectare, that you find in Eastern Poland,” stresses Sweet. “Also, in the latter regions, plots that may in fact belong to the same large farm are often mixed in with other plots belonging to a different farm.”

This is why the modelling of this agricultural diversity will make it possible to estimate in what way these coexistences can be managed. The smaller the plots and the more they form a patchwork, the greater the gene flows – to the point where it sometimes seems out of the question to even contemplate any coexistence of GM and non-GM crops. The aim of the researchers is to develop a tool that makes it possible to define, on the basis of crop and agricultural landscape, up to what GMO production limit the existence of separate growing chains remains physically possible.  

A question of scale
Problems of scale are another challenge for SIGMEA. Most of the results currently available relate to small plots of land, and it is not easy to know to what extent these can be extrapolated to larger units. Due to the distrust of GM crops, only very few studies in a limited number of countries – most notably Spain – have been possible on plots of between 10 and 50 hectares. “We have therefore modelled these flows,” states Sweet. “The vicious circle is that with no field validations we do not know if our models are correct.” One way of effecting these validations would be to use molecular markers making it possible to carry out flow studies using non-GM plants. 

The SIGMEA teams are also looking at other related issues, such as in-field detection and legislation. In the former case, it is a question of developing tools that can be used directly by the farmer, and which must therefore be simple, fast, reliable and cheap – not an easy task. The legal questions are also very sensitive. Although influenced by European Directives, the laws are not identical in all the Member States. Some borders are also particularly ‘permeable’ (France/Belgium, Germany/Austria) in the sense that the same farmers often own land on both sides of the ‘barrier’.


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  TO FIND OUT MORE  
 
  • Sigmea (Sustainable Introduction of Genetically Modified Crops into European Agriculture)
  • International conference on the Coexistence of agricultural production chains
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    TO FIND OUT MORE

    • Sigmea (Sustainable Introduction of Genetically Modified Crops into European Agriculture)
    • International conference on the Coexistence of agricultural production chains

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