High-value honey and especially organic honey are in demand worldwide. In contrast to the conventional sector, that is represented by the beekeepers’ international association Apimondia , until two years ago the organic sector did not have a platform for the special issues of organic beekeeping and the organic honey sector. In 2010 the international Organic Beekeeping Conferencepremiered in Bulgaria. This year’s wide-ranging conference, lasting nearly a week in San Cristóbal de las Casas in southern Mexico, was planned and implemented by an interdisciplinary team under the leadership of FiBL (Salvador Garibay, fourth from left) ,Naturland (Peter Gänz, on left) and Ecosur (Remy Vandamme, second from left). They were supported by the local beekeeping cooperatives Maya Vinic and Mieles del Sur, the monitoring organizations Certimex and IMO, the umbrella organizations Apimondia and IFOAM, and by representatives of the Mexican government. The organizers were overwhelmed to see so many people (400) attending the conference. It was very well organized and it offered all the groups from the practice of beekeeping, research, trade, monitoring organizations and associations interesting lectures, discussions and practical workshops. (Picture: Happy with the successful event: representatives of the organizing team at the end of the conference)
One of the most urgent and passionately discussed issues was genetic engineering. The Mexican beekeepers and their colleagues round the world see the honey trade, with its most important customer, the EU, as being under threat. The reason for the threat is the decision of the Mexican government to allow 80,000 ha of GM soya to be grown on the Yucatan Peninsular. This sparsely populated area, with a high level of biodiversity, is precisely where an especially large number of beekeepers operate. The Mexican government’s aim to intensify agricultural production by means of GMO monocrops (even GM maize is planned) increases the risk of contaminating honey and the possibility of endangering regional biodiversity. (Picture: A panel discussion about genetic engineering highlighting the precarious situation)
Moreover, the ruling by the European Court (AZ:C-442/09) is going to create problems for the honey trade in Central and Latin America in the future. On 6 September 2011, the Court came to a final decision regarding an action brought by the Augsburg hobby beekeeper Karl Heinz Bablok. The judge’s pronouncement means that honey with pollen from prohibited GMOs is not permitted. Even the slightest trace of pollen from genetically modified plants contaminates the honey and means it can’t be sold in the EU. “Instead of punishing the purveyors of gene technology in agriculture, it’s the beekeepers who are being punished by this zero tolerance,” says the eco-association Naturland in a statement. Approximately 41,000 families in Mexico keep around 1.8 million colonies of bees, thus securing their livelihood at least in part. Moreover, they bring almost84 million US-dollars in foreign currency into the country, so they are an economic factor that should not be underestimated. Mexico is the sixth biggest producer worldwide and the third biggest exporter. Germany imports 80 % of its honey from Mexico. (Picture: Perfect location for the conference: in the peaceful town San Cristóbal you find a number of organic restaurants and alternative outlets. In the surrounding area there are organic beekeepers)
The EU Organic Regulation prescribes zero tolerance regarding genetically modified organisms in all products, including honey. However, in Latin American countries like Argentina, Brazil or Chile genetic engineering is already well underway – GM maize and GM soya are being grown there on a big scale. Trading honey from these countries is already a risky business regarding contamination with GMO. In terms of genetic engineering, Mexico is right now at a crossroads. On the Yucatan Peninsular they began to grow GM soya in 2011 and the consequence was that containers with contaminated honey were rejected by countries in the EU. In contrast, Peru set an example by opposing GM, and in November 2011 it imposed a 10-year moratorium on the commercial cultivation of genetically engineered crops. (Picture: Networking and discussion outside the conference hall as well)
Following the example of Peru, more than 400 people who took part in the conference signed apetition to the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture calling for a moratorium. The petition was sent to the Minister of Agriculture Francisco Mayorga Castañeda and his ministerial colleagues in the ministries responsible for the environment, health, economics and science. In seven paragraphs, the authors describe the negative consequences of authorizing and releasing genetically modified plants into the environment and the impossibility of co-existence with non-modified plants. They also elucidate the economic, ecological and social impacts. (Picture: Group picture: the participants at the conference were all delighted with the days spent in San Cristóbal)
Taurino Reyes Santiago, the director of Certimex, the biggest organic monitoring organization in Mexico, emphasized thescarcely soluble dilemma in which producers, certifiers and retailers find themselves: “Co-existence is not a possibility, but by granting permission for GM we’ve got a situation that we have to cope with. Purchasing departments buying in honey want to cover the demand and don’t want to leave their partners, the beekeepers, out in the cold. The worst case scenario for Mexico would be if buyers had to decide on another sourcing country on account of the GMO problem.”In response to a communiqué published in the autumn of 2011, the government simply stated that the authorization of GM cropping conformed with the law. “We’re pressing on, and we hope that our present petition will attract the attention of the wider public,” said Reyes. (Picture: Organic beekeeper Rosa Maria reading out the petition to the participants in the conference)
In the interest of social compatibility, Gepa-purchaser Stephan Beck (see video statement) argued for a workable solution in the case of conventional fair trade honey, i.e. he is proposing negotiations with the EU authorities for the adoption of a 0.1 % threshold regarding GM contamination. “If we want to continue trading honey from Latin America, there is no way round a lower threshold figure.”
He said that the demand for zero tolerance would cause collateral damage of a socially irresponsible kind. “We’ve got hardly any more islands of freedom from GM in the world, that’s a fact. We want to show solidarity with our longstanding suppliers,” said Beck. Despite this, Gepa supports any political measure like the petition to oppose genetic engineering. Together with the big importers of honey Norevo and Tuchel, the German fair trade company Gepa is an important purchaser of Mexican honey. (Picture: Salvador Garibay, FibL Switzerland and Remy Vandamme, Ecosur Mexiko,were pleased with the high number of participants, the expert contributions and the commitment shown in the discussions)
Another big theme at the conference was the quality and hygiene standards when harvesting and processing honey. Peter Gänz from Naturland in Mexico said there was much room for improvement. After being cautioned by the EU, the Mexican state authority applied the standard in the strictest possible way, with the result that the bar has been raised higher than in the EU itself. The Naturland association advises the beekeeping cooperatives with regard to quality assurance, eco-guidelines and internal monitoring systems. Other interesting topics were innovative approaches to beekeeping and the return to ancient traditions (Maya beekeeping), together with various research initiatives to do with bee diseases and beekeeping.
It was pleasing to see at the conference that a number of young beekeepers, both male and female, are reinvigorating this craft-based industry and continuing the tradition with such commitment. You can watch here a video interview with Stephanie Casasola:
(Video below: Manfred Fürst from Naturland Germany was in San Cristóbal to run a course on quality guidelines and certification. He was impressed with the great interest)
The next International Organic Beekeeping Conference will be held in 2014 in Italy.
Further information and the lectures can be downloaded at: www.ecosur.mx/abejas