After a two-year debate, the EU Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health endorsed a proposal by the EU Commission to allow the presence of up to 0.1 percent of non-EU approved biotech crops in imported feed for livestock and poultry. The draft regulations were sent to the European Parliament and the European Council of the Agriculture and Food Ministers for their consideration. If not rejected by either group, after three months the regulations will be formally adopted by the EU Commission.

 

The importing of feed with traces of unapproved biotech crops is part of the larger issue of growing and using biotech crops in the EU. The Commission has approved two biotech crops for planting, but some member states have refused to allow them to be planted. The Commission has proposed to retain the decisions on imports and regulations on use, but to officially allow individual member governments to decide to prohibit the planting of biotech crops. Late last year the Commission approved several new crop varieties for import to relieve some of the pressures on feed supplies. The 0.1 percent tolerance is meant to be a longer-term solution.

The decision was partly driven by feed costs for livestock producers. Wageningen University estimated the extra costs for the winter of 2009/10 at over $1.3 billion. According to the European Association of Farmer Cooperatives, 80 percent of the protein meals used in livestock and poultry feed are imported. With the existing bulk handling systems for grains and oilseeds in the EU and major exporting countries, it is almost impossible to prevent trace amounts of biotech events not approved by the EU from being included in shipments. Importing firms and feed manufacturers have had to deal with the uncertainty of finding trace amounts at unloading that were not detected earlier in the inspection process and having the feed impounded by regulators as occurred in 2009.

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that in 2010 93 percent of U.S. soybeans and 86 percent of U.S. corn were biotech. The U.S. is the number one exporter of both crops. According to estimates just released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, for the soybeans now being harvested in Brazil, the number two exporter of soybeans, 75 percent are biotech, in Argentina, the number three exporter of soybeans and number one exporter of soybean meal, 100 percent are biotech and Paraguay, the number four exporter of soybeans, 95 percent are biotech.

The 27 countries of the EU are the world’s second larger importer of soybeans this year at 14.4 million metric ton (MMT), 15 percent of world imports, as estimated by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. They are also expected to import 23.3 MMT of soybean meal, 41 percent of the world total. Importers of whole soybeans like Mexico, the number three importer, and Japan, the number four importer, have approved more biotech crops making tolerances less of an issue.

EU hog producers have complained the most about added costs because 50-60 percent of their cash expenses are feed. They are directly burdened with any regulatory uncertainty costs that are passed on to them and do not have market power to pass those costs along the supply chain to consumers. If they are forced out of business, the additional imported meat will likely be raised on biotech crops.

Supporters of a tolerance level higher than zero were not unanimous in their enthusiasm for the decision. The tolerance is for a narrow group of biotech events which have been approved in the country where the crop was grown and have been submitted for approval in the EU or for which the EU authorization has expired. The EU has been slow in approving varieties and developers may be reluctant to devote resources to seeking approvals. The tolerance of 0.1 percent is much smaller than the 0.9 percent tolerance informally discussed a few years ago.

The import tolerance is for livestock and poultry feed only, not products for direct human consumption. Given the bulk handling nature of the current grain system, this almost requires that food grade corn and soybeans will need separate facilities which will increase the cost of doing business.

Some supporters of the new tolerance level lament that the change was forced by economic conditions for livestock producers, not from recognition that biotech crops are safe for human consumption and the environment. Detractors of biotechnology consider the decision to be “the camel’s nose under the tent” that will lead to more decisions in favor of biotechnology. Both groups are right. People resist changes of many types as long as the costs are minimal in money and time. Change occurs when the costs are large enough that they can no longer be ignored. Once change has been made, other changes look more plausible as people become comfortable with the new situation. Supporters should continue to make the arguments for a higher tolerance level, and detractors should be rightly concerned that other decisions favorable to the use of biotechnology will naturally follow this decision.

With production of biotech crops in its sixteenth year, now may be the time to reconsider how biotech crops are regulated. They have repeatedly gone through exhaustive studies under regulatory authorities of developed and developing countries. Detractors of biotechnology have spent millions of dollars trying to find reasons to be against them. Humans around the world have consumed them with no documented cases of health problems. Regulators should now be able to harmonize regulations across countries for versions of the technology that are now well understood and develop screening procedures to monitor for possible irregularities. The resources saved could be used to provide regulatory oversight for the new biotech events that continue to be developed.

The new tolerance is better than no tolerance at all, but still leaves importers at risk without treating a real food safety or quality issue. The debate over a long-term solution will continue.