BRUSSELS, Belgium - Amid the storms raging in Europe over the marketing of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a U.K. academic claimed last week that consumer demands for segregation of GMO and non-GMO foods is possible, and is already being done.

But, he added, it's expensive.

Allan Buckwell, professor of agricultural economies at Wye College, in the University of London, came to Brussels on April 12 to present his report, "Economics of Identity Preservation for Genetically Modified Crops." His views will provide some consolation for European consumer groups who have been insisting that they should be given the choice over whether or not to buy GMO foods. But the cost implications of what he said may alarm consumers, manufacturers and farmers. The segregating process can increase the cost of raw materials by as much as 150 percent, he said.

The extra cost of identity preservation, or segregation, has to be recuperated at some stage in the food chain, Buckwell said, and the higher the level of segregation required, the higher the cost.

Although consumer groups are the loudest advocates of segregation, they are not, Buckwell pointed out, always willing to pay the costs entailed by agronomic improvements. At the other end of the food chain, farmers need to be assured of some compensation for the extra cost they may incur for applying segregation methods, he said.

Consumers Will Pay For GMO Improvements

There is nothing new about using identity preservation techniques to ensure that crops which have special characteristics can be traced from the field to their final destination, Buckwell said. Segregation is much used in world trade to distinguish between commodity crops and higher added value varieties. But there is renewed interest in the context of GMO foods, because European consumers want more information about how food is produced in response to ethical and food safety issues - and companies developing new crop varieties want to recover the value added to basic agricultural commodities.

But, for farmers who save on the cost for pesticides and herbicides when growing GMO crops such as soya and maize, segregation means an unwelcome additional cost. These crops are traded as bulk commodities, for which separation into GMO and non-GMO is difficult to achieve. In the cases of varieties modified to offer improved characteristics to the consumer - such as a soybean with an altered oil profile, or a longer-lasting tomato, which makes a better base for sauces - the suppliers have an incentive themselves to ensure segregation along the food chain, because they can command a higher price premium for their products. In such cases, consumers are more ready to absorb the additional costs, Buckwell said.

Buckwell predicted that, as more of the world's soya comes from GMO varieties (which offer the farmer greater benefits, in terms of higher yields and lower costs), farmers will stop growing the less profitable non-GMO varieties, reducing the availability of non-GMO supplies and making segregation more difficult. Farmers may then only continue to grow (or revert to growing) the traditional non-GMO varieties if they receive a sufficient price premium for doing so.

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