After four years of uncertainty, an EU Commission proposal to permit individual countries to opt out of allowing the planting of biotech drops may be approved by the end of the year. According to a report by Inside U.S .Trade, Italian Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina recently told the European Parliament the Italian presidency of the Council of the EU plans to begin negotiations with Parliament. Regardless of the outcomes of the talks, the EU policies on biotech crops will not become less controversial.

The EU Commission first made its proposal in July 2010 to permit countries to not allow the cultivation of EU-approved biotech crops. The reasoning was that by providing assurances that countries would not be required to allow planting of biotech crops, they would not oppose approvals for the rest of the EU. Many industry people and political watchers have questioned whether it is politically possible for an EU country official to vote for approval of a biotech crop at the EU level while opposing it for planting at home. The U.S. Agricultural Attaches in the EU have identified a group of opposed countries (Austria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, and Slovenia) that believe that biotech crop cultivation could not coexist with other types of agriculture. They would be dooming their agricultures to fall further and further behind the rest of the EU if others used biotech crops and they did not.

Under the current political structure of the EU, the Council of EU governments and the European Parliament must work out their differences and present a common plan to the Commission. Those are the negotiations referred to by the Italian Agriculture Minister. The European Parliament in June 2011 passed a version of the cultivation proposal that included banning biotech crops for environmental reasons. The Commission is opposed to that language because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is in charge of making safety assessments under EU law. If the EFSA had food safety or environmental concerns, the biotech crop would never be sent to the EU Council for approval.

The EU Council proposal approved in June allows governments to invoke a range of reasons for opting out related to environmental or agricultural policy objectives; land use; town and country planning; socio-economic impacts; the proximity to non-GMO crops; and public policy. The EU Commission would also have the responsibility to work with individual country governments and biotech firms on requests that firms tailor their cultivation approval applications to specifically exclude countries that do not want biotech crops grown. If an agreement could not be worked out, the country could then choose to opt out. The optimists hope a tailoring agreement would always be worked out. Both supporters and opponents of biotech crops believe this provision will lead to lawsuits.

The June decision by the EU Council was very much a political compromise. The EU Commission was stung by a September 2013 ruling by the European Court of Justice that the Commission was negligent in taking too long to approve biotech crops for commercial use. In a March meeting of the Council, Germany and the United Kingdom dropped their previous opposition to a compromise plan offered by the Greek presidency of the EU. They had previously formed a blocking minority with France, Belgium, Cyprus and Slovenia. Germany’s new government had not taken a position on the issue, and the UK supported the plan because it returned power to the individual country governments. The U.S. Ag Attaches have labeled the UK as an ‘adopter’ country that will likely plant biotech crops if given a chance and Germany as ‘conflicted’ with major groups on both sides. Germany had allowed biotech corn to be planted in the past, but has since banned it.

All of this activity applies only to biotech crops for planting in the EU. Problems with approvals for food and feed use continue. According to the U.S. Ag Attaches in the EU, about 70 percent of soybean meal consumed in the EU is imported and 80 percent of this meal is from biotech soybeans. The U.S. is the second largest exporter of soybeans to the EU and the third largest exporter of soybean meal. It       requires 46 months on average to approve a biotech product. One third of this time occurs after EFSA issues its initial opinion to the EU Commission. The Commission has waited on average 10 months before requesting a vote of the EU Council versus the prescribed three months.

This all may be a political exercise in futility. Under the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, member governments are obligated to impose planting restrictions on a crop only to protect human, animal and plant health based on a scientific risk assessment. The EFSA has already determined the biotech crops at issue are safe.

The U.S. Ag Attaches in the EU estimate that corn plantings in the EU in 2013 were about 24 million acres, less than one-third of the corn acreage of the U.S. Plantings of biotech corn were estimated at 340,000 acres, 1.5 percent of EU plantings, with 90 percent of the acreage in Spain and 30 percent of its plantings. Other EU countries planting biotech corn in 2013 include Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania and Slovakia. Other countries in the potential ‘adopters’ group that could plant biotech corn beyond the UK, include Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland. France, Germany and Poland with large areas of crops planted are in the ‘conflicted’ group. Austria, Hungary and Italy are significant corn growers in the ‘opposed’ group.

The disagreements in Europe over biotech crops leave the EU somewhat out of sync with changes over time. Ten or fifteen years ago some people in the EU had plausible worries over biotech crops which were defensible, but eventually proven to be unfounded. As groups like the EFSA have studied biotech crops they have concluded the crops are safe for livestock and human consumption and are not a threat to the environment.   Real world experience of 4 billion acres planted and feeding livestock and poultry for 18 years have shown the same results. The EU needs to explore other ways to respond to citizen concerns because this approach does not appear be addressing substantive issues.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade &Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter |Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.