There are concerns that genetically engineered substances can contaminate organic foods during food processing.
The threat of contamination by genetically modified organisms (GMO) has long worried consumers. In a project commissioned by the Swiss government, the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture has now found that it is indeed impossible to protect organic food from contamination - unless the two are separated not only during cultivation, but also during food processing.
In an experiment, the researchers ground five tons of imported Bt-176 maize, a genetically modified variety from the US, to flour. When the mill had been cleaned, another charge of maize was ground, this time of a variety that contained no GMO.
Samples taken after two hours of grinding still contained 1.2 per cent of Bt-176 - more than the legal declaration limit for GMO components in processed food. After several more hours of milling and four tons of the conventional maize ground, still 0.5 per cent of the flour was contaminated by traces of the GMO variety.
Nutritionist Regula Bickel of the Research Institute concludes: "Cleaning processing machinery is not enough, the production process has to be completely separated if you want to guarantee that organic flour is free of GMO."
The researchers emphasise that they conducted an experiment. In reality, GMO contamination isn't a problem for the time being because Switzerland has prohibited the cultivation and restricted the import of GMO foods. Unlike in Britain or Germany, the prohibition extends to test cultivations.
But the situation could change if and when more GMO products are produced, and if Switzerland was forced to import more of them as a result.
At the moment, the authorities allow only the import of GMO in three maize and one soybean variety. Meanwhile, GMO producers in the Americas, where consumers and politicians tolerate the technology, have bowed before consumer pressure across the Atlantic and become reluctant to aggressively market GMO varieties in Europe.
If, however, the situation changes and the separation of food production chains as suggested by the Research Institute would become necessary, the cost of organic products would go up by an average of seven per cent according to Bickel.
The increase would come on top of the costs of protecting organic food from contamination by conventional pollutants such as traces of herbicides or pesticides. These costs are estimated at 15 to 30 per cent of the food price.
There is disagreement in the worldwide community of organic farming what "free" of GMO contamination means. The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, one of the oldest and most respected institutions in the field internationally, takes a more pragmatic view than similar institutions and consumer bodies elsewhere.
"It is impossible to produce cleaner than the environment", says the institute's director Urs Niggli. "If the environment is polluted, we cannot give a 100 per cent guarantee against pollution." While he accepts the rationality of the legal one per cent declaration limit, Niggli still thinks that organic food producers should strive to stay below it.
Niggli refuses to be drawn into a discussion of the real dangers - or not - of food that contains traces of GMO. "Whether such fears are rational is not an issue. The issue is that the term 'organic' is a promise made to consumers that we should keep, and as a result of which we should market only GMO-free products."
There is a discrepancy, Niggli says, that producers of organic food still tend to think in terms of farming methods, whereas consumers expect organic quality in the end product. With the organic food market growing into ever more areas of processed foods - from chocolate bars, flavoured dairy drinks to baby and instant foods - the discrepancy is bound to widen.
While Bickel's research will soon be published in a wider government report on assuring the absence of genetically engineered substances in Switzerland, the institute conducts some other research projects in related fields. Protection from GMO contamination was singled out as a priority at this year's scientific conference of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
Another project coordinated by the institute in Frick is an interactive electronic database for the international exchange of organic seeds (www.organicxseeds.com).
With the growth of the organic food market, many organic farmers have encountered the problem of lack of seeds. They are allowed to use conventional seeds and still sell their product under the organic label.
But whereas the use of herbicides and other conventional farming methods do not alter the quality of seeds, GMO seeds do. "If the cultivation of GMO should increase, contamination of seeds could become a problem in adjoining fields", says project coordinator Rachel Pushparajah who hopes to include 50 per cent of all European organic seed producers in her website.
By Markus Haefliger