ROME, ITALY — The increased production of genetically modified crops (GMO) around the globe has led to a higher number of incidents of low levels of GMOs being detected in traded food and feed, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on March 13.

The incidents have led to trade disruptions between countries with shipments of grain, cereal and other crops being blocked by importing countries and destroyed or returned to the country of origin.

The trace amounts of GMO crops become mixed with non-GMO food and feed crops by accident during field production (for example, a field trial of a GMO crop grown near a field of a non-GMO crop), processing, packing, storage and transportation.

There is no international agreement defining or quantifying "low level", therefore the interpretation varies from country to country. In many countries it is interpreted as any level at which detection is possible i.e. very low trace levels while in other countries case-by-case decisions are taken on what level is acceptable.

The GMO crop in question may be authorized for commercial use or sale in one or more countries but not yet authorized in an importing country. Therefore, if the importing country detects the unauthorized crop, it may be legally obliged to reject the shipment.  

In the first survey of its kind, 75 out of 193 FAO member countries responded to questions on low levels of GM crops in international food and animal feed trade. 

The survey results will be discussed at a technical consultation organized by FAO to be held in Rome from March 20-21 to review the extent and pattern of trade disruptions caused by the contaminated shipments. The meeting will discuss trade issues related to low levels of GMO crops, but will not debate pros and cons of GMO crops. 

The survey reveals:

• Respondents reported 198 incidents of low levels of GMO crops mixed into non- GMO crops between 2002 and 2012;
• There was a jump in cases between 2009-12, when 138 out of the 198 incidents were reported;
• Shipments with low levels of GMO crops originated mainly from the US, Canada and China, although other countries also accidently shipped such crops;
• Once detected, most shipments were destroyed or returned to the exporting country;
• The highest number of incidents involved linseed, rice, maize and papaya;

"The numbers of incidents are small relative to the millions of tonnes of food and feed traded every day," said Renata Clarke, FAO senior food safety officer in charge of the survey. "But because trade disruptions may be very costly and given the reported increase in the occurrence of these disruptions, FAO conducted this survey and is holding a technical consultation to try to start a dialogue between countries on the issue.

"We were surprised to see incidents from every region," she said. "It seems the more testing and more monitoring they do, the more incidents they find."