The European Union is divided over the use of biotech crops. This was obvious again when an EU scientific committee voted 13 in favor and 10 opposed with three abstentions and one absent on a proposal for importing three biotech corn varieties, two from a joint effort by Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences and one from Monsanto. Because of the deadlock in the voting, the decision will be passed on to the Agricultural Ministers of the 27 member states where a similar vote will likely occur, which will send the issue to the EU Commission for resolution.

The government of the Netherlands has proposed that the EU Commission continue to have the authority to approve biotech crops for importing and/or planting, but the individual member state governments would be allowed to officially ban planting of biotech crops. According to a report by Reuters, the Dutch government believes biotech crops are a reality because they are widely produced around the world and imported by many countries, including members of the EU. Biotech crops are not now grown in the Netherlands. The one Monsanto biotech corn variety approved for planting in the EU is grown on about 250,000 acres, mostly in Spain, while total world plantings of biotech crops in 2008 were estimated by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications at 250 million acres.

The Netherlands is supported in making the change by Austria which has been staunchly opposed to planting biotech crops. Reuters reported that 12 other EU countries supported the Austrian position. The British government supports the Dutch efforts and Spain is also likely to support the concept. The German coalition government is cautiously supporting biotech crops and supports the Dutch position; even though in 2009 it banned planting of the one approved biotech corn variety. France also banned that variety in 2008 after allowing it in previous years.

The President of the EU Commission, Jose Barroso of Portugal, has gotten caught in the middle of the biotech crop issue. He supports any plan to base acceptance of biotech crops on science while allowing the EU members to decide on the planting of crops in their respective countries. That has been interpreted by some people as favoring speeding up the clearance process for varieties now in the regulatory process. The Commission released a statement clarifying that it neither supports nor opposes biotech crops and is simply fulfilling its assigned role.

The issue will be taken by the new EU Commission sworn in February 9th for a four year term. Barroso, serving his second term as President, has assigned the new Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, John Dalli, as the lead to develop a policy framework for the Commission based on EU law and concerns of the public. Dalli is from Malta and was the Social Minister there from 2007-2009 and the Minister of Finance and the Economy from 1998-2004.
The new Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn of Ireland, is positive about the role of biotech crops. An article in the The Irish Times newspaper by the President of Dublin City University noted she said biotech research should continue when asked in her confirmation hearing before the European Parliament. Her view could make a difference in Commission discussions.

Biotech issues continue to roil politics in EU member countries. The government of Bulgaria, which became a member in 2007, proposed to update its laws related to biotechnology to conform to common practices in the EU. That was view by some people as allowing biotech crops to be planted and led to protests. According to Reuters, a revised law has a five-year moratorium for planting biotech crops and only allows research and field experiments as provided for by EU regulations.

Supporters of a new EU approach see a need to reconcile the current approach of not allowing plantings of biotech crops while at the same time importing about 30 million metric tons per year of soybeans and meal which are mostly biotech. Opponents of the change believe that it makes no sense for products considered safe for use in the EU to be banned in some member state because of political pressure. Any changes would need to be consistent with the EU’s legal system and be made jointly with the European Parliament. The Parliament now has equal power with the Commission in the EU’s recently revised governing structure.

While the need for a new policy for biotech crops is evident, there does not seem to be a way to achieve an improved outcome. A recent analysis by Mark Pollack of Temple University and Gregory Shaffer of the University of Minnesota gives one view of the possible thinking behind the Commission’s actions in approving biotech crops. The EU faces challenges by the U.S. and others in the WTO over not having a scientific basis for excluding biotech crops. Pollack and Shaffer believe that the issues cannot be resolved at the WTO or anyplace else; the conflict can only be managed by relieving pressure to avoid a major trade dispute. Thus, the Commission has focused on approving a few products, like corn and soybeans, which are important to US and Canadian farmers and biotech firms and, in return, is willing to accept greater member-state decision making on planting biotech crops. The authors cite the example of the Commission approving a biotech flax Canada wanted to export to the EU and Canada withdrawing its WTO complaint.

Time will tell if Pollack and Shaffer have the correct analysis, but it raises a fundamental fact that not all government-decided issues will be settled based on science. As with the EU issue of hormone-free beef and concerns in S. Korea about cattle over 30 months of age and BSE, at some point a compromise has to be struck that allows trade to move forward or no one benefits.

The issues for the EU Commission appear to be how to allow member states to grow biotech corn if they choose and import biotech soybeans for crushing or soybean meal for livestock feed. Making those decisions fit with the EU’s vision of open trade across member countries’ borders has yet to be resolved. If that type of compromise would pass the political test in the U.S. is uncertain. Any solution will likely stretch the public policy comfort zones of all participants.