The EU Commission has proposed to allow member countries to opt out of importing biotech crops similar to the recent provision to opt out of planting biotech crops.  This a sharp change from previous policies and could leave EU livestock and poultry producers without competitively priced supplies of high-protein vegetable meals.  The EU Commission plans to do this while honoring the EU’s WTO sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) commitments and maintaining a single unified market among the 28 member countries of the EU.

The best way to understand what the EU Commission is intending to do is to use its own words from the press release and fact sheets issued with the decision.  “Once adopted, today’s proposal will, fully in line with the principle of subsidiarity, grant Member States a greater say as regards the use of EU- authorised GMOs in food and feed on their respective territories,” says the press release that quotes EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis.  The press release went on to state, “Since it is crucial that a single risk management system is maintained – as this ensures the same level of protection throughout the EU – the current authorisation system, based on science and the labelling rules ensuring consumer choice, will not be amended.”  And, “Optouts shall be based on legitimate reasons other than those assessed at EU level, i.e. risk to human or animal health or the environment.”

In a questions and answers fact sheet on the decision making process, the Commission gets to the heart of the problem as it sees the problem, “The final decision on authorisations is therefore always left to the Commission at the very end of the procedure. This situation of repeated “no opinion” results is unique compared to the thousands of implementing decisions adopted via comitology every year, where the Member States generally support the Commission’s draft decision in the Standing Committee stage.”  The Commission has proposed what it considers to be a straight forward solution, “The Commission proposes to amend the Regulation on genetically modified food and feed, to allow Member States to adopt national decisions restricting or prohibiting the use in food or feed of GMOs, after they have been authorised at EU level (opt-out measures).  Member States would have to justify that their opt-out measures are compatible with EU law and the principles of proportionality and non-discrimination between national and non-national products.”

The current authorization process would remain unchanged.  The new President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, had promised a six month review of the process before he took office this past November.  The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would continue to rule on the scientific safety of biotech crops for cultivation and for import.  Each individual country in the EU would decide on the actual use of specific biotech crops based on other than food safety and the environment.  The U.S. and other producers of biotech crops argue that once a biotech crop has been ruled safe by the appropriate national scientific authority, in this case the EFSA, the EU’s and other countries’ WTO commitments do not provide for any restrictions on imports for food or feed.

In another Fact Sheet on biotech crops, the Commission acknowledges the well-known fact that the EU livestock and poultry industries are highly dependent on imported biotech vegetable proteins, “Data shows that the Union needs more than 36 million tonnes of equivalent soybean per year to feed its livestock.  However, the Union produces only 1.4 million tonnes of soybean annually (which is de facto non-GM as no GM soya is authorised for cultivation in the EU).  The Union livestock sector is therefore highly dependent on third countries’ production for its vegetable proteins.  In 2013, the Union imported 18.5 million tonnes of soymeal and 13.5 million tonnes of soybean, representing more than 60% of the Union plant protein needs.”  The Fact Sheet goes on to explain that most of these imports come from countries that produce 90 percent or more biotech soybeans.  No information is given on how the importing opt out would work within the single market concept for the EU.

As expected, a couple of days after releasing the importing opt out proposal the EU Commission announced adoption under the existing rules ten new authorisations for biotech crops for food/feed use and seven renewals of existing authorizations.  Also approved for import were two biotech cut flowers.  None of these were approved for cultivation.  All had received ‘no opinion’ votes from member countries in both Standing Committees and Appeal Committees.  Since no qualified majority in favor or against was expressed, the Commission as required by the current GMO legal framework adopted these pending decisions.  That should cover the needs for protein meals and corn until the European Parliament and a Committee of the member counties decide on the import opt out proposal.

The major exporters of biotech feed crops, the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Canada, voiced their opposition to the proposal before and after it was released.  U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Froman said in a statement, “At a time when the U.S. and the EU are working to create further opportunities for growth and jobs through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), proposing this kind of trade restrictive action is not constructive.”

The Financial Times of the United Kingdom put the issue in proper perspective in an editorial.  All of the top U.S. agricultural exports are limited in one way or another by EU policies on biotechnology, growth hormones used in meat production and treatment of red meat and poultry meat for human consumption.  This has happened even though the EFSA has determined they are safe for use.  Other attempts at trade agreements have failed over these issues.  The import opt out proposal for biotech feed products is simply the latest obstacle.

If the Financial Times perspective is accurate, USTR Froman’s challenge in negotiating a trade agreement is bigger than originally thought.  Much of the thinking in the U.S. on the TTIP is that the EU leaders see the need for change, but need pressure from this side of the Atlantic to actually change.  Now it looks like they have no desire to change; they simply assume we and everyone else will change if the EU stonewalls long enough.  That way has worked for them in the past, so why change.

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.