A few days from now, EU member governments will be allowed to not permit the planting of biotech crops for whatever reason, except to protect the health and safety of people, animals and the environment.  That decision will still be made by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) based on sound science.  This change may make it easier to import biotech crops from North and South America for animal feed.

In 2010 the European Union Commission proposed a ‘disharmonization’ measure to give back to member countries the decision to regulate the planting of biotech crops.  Planting, importing and marketing are the jurisdiction of the EU under the current arrangement.  The new arrangement is limited to the planting of biotech crops only and does not affect imports and marketing of biotech crops, which remain under EU control.

This was done on the argument that it would be easier to get approval to import livestock feed – mostly corn, soybeans and soybean meal – if the planting decision was separated from the import decision.  The EU livestock and poultry industries are heavily dependent on imported high-protein meals and face potential shortages when the crop growing countries adopt new biotech events that have not been approved in the EU.  The EFSA has determined they are safe for animal and human use and do not harm the environment, but individual countries do not want them planted for other reasons.  This regulatory arrangement would divide those two decisions and supposedly make the import decision easier.

This was not an easy decision to make because many EU political leaders take pride in treating all 28 member countries alike.  They argue there cannot be real unity if there is a patchwork of regulations, and there is the practical side of how to manage cross border trade with different regulations.  But the divide already existed.  A qualified majority of at least 16 member countries with at least 65 percent of EU population voted for the arrangement in a European Council meeting.  The European Parliament voted for the proposal 480-159.

Member countries will have two opportunities to opt-out of planting a biotech crop. The first one, which is expected to normally be used, is after the biotech crop has been determined by the EFSA to be safe and is being authorized for use.  A country will ask to amend the geographical scope of the application to exclude that country from being in the authorized use area.  If the biotech crop has already been authorized, a country can ask to be excluded for a compelling reason, such as to address an agricultural policy objective or socio-economic impact.  How all of this will be worked out is uncertain.

The critical issue for trade in the planting opt-out is accelerating the approval process for importing new biotech events.  If there is no true trade-off of planting and importing or the opting-out process is too cumbersome or uncertain, there will likely be no faster approval process of new events and reduction of uncertainty for EU importers or U.S. exporters.  The concerns about the low-level presence of unapproved events would remain.  EU livestock and poultry producers would have higher feed costs since producers in exporting countries have shown a clear preference for growing biotech crops.  The EU also would have more difficulty achieving its goal of maintaining a high level of output for its livestock and poultry industries.

According to the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of USDA estimates for the current marketing year, the EU produced 1.7 million metric ton (MMT) of soybeans and will import 12.7 MMT.  They will import another 19.3 MMT of soybean meal.  The three major exporters of soybeans and meal are the U.S., Brazil and Argentina, and all plant over 90 percent biotech soybeans.

The situation is not as extreme for corn.  The EU produced 74.2 MMT and is expected to import 8.0 MMT.  The U.S. corn crop was 93 percent biotech, Argentina 80 percent and Brazil about 80 percent on average of the summer and winter crops.  Ukraine, the third largest exporter, is officially all non-biotech, but is thought to have to have a significant amount of biotech corn.  Several other small exporters have a significant amount of non-biotech corn.  The EU also uses large amounts of other domestic coarse grains and wheat in livestock and poultry feed.

The major seed companies that have invested in biotechnology have been relatively quiet about these public policy changes in the EU.  They have invested time and money in the EU market and have little to show for the effort and have now focused on the non-biotech market in the EU.  Their biotech efforts have been directed outside the EU where there have been good market opportunities.  Like the producers of biotech crops in the exporting countries, they would gain from fewer uncertainties by having the EU import market more open to biotech crops.

The EU was never going to be a big market for biotech seed.  In 2014, the EU harvested about 23.7 million acres of corn for grain and 1.5 million acres of soybeans.  If biotech seed made corn and soybeans more competitive with other EU crops, they would likely attract some additional acres.  If biotech wheat was developed, the EU would be a substantial market because it harvested 66.2 million acres in 2014.

Depending on how these public policies are implemented, they could result in another dispute at the WTO, but that is several years away.  The more immediate action would be by EU feed users if this does not speed up the approval process for imports and reduce uncertainties.  Addressing the low-level presence issue would be one way to provide some relief.

Also of relevance is whether or not one or more EU countries actually allow the wide-spread planting of biotech crops.  The reality of the plantings of biotech crops in one of the larger EU countries with no negative consequences could change the perception about the benefits of biotech crops.

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