The EU recently changed its biotech crop approval process to allow member countries to reject planting biotech crops even though they are determined to be safe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). This was done to supposedly make it easier to gain approval for importing biotech commodities. The EU Commission is now reportedly considering allowing member countries to also opt-out of importing biotech crops.
The option to reject planting of biotech crops was seen as reasonable because some individual countries had already rejected planting and the overall approval process for importing had been slowed down by the planting issue. EU livestock and poultry producers depend on imports for over 80 percent of the protein meals used in the EU and the major exporters of soybeans and soybean meal, the U.S., Brazil and Argentina, grow mostly biotech soybeans. The feed suppliers would have to pay a premium price to encourage farmers in exporting countries to grow and segregate commercial volumes of non-biotech soybeans for the EU market.
The EU Commission is considering three options according to a report by Inside U.S. Trade. The Commission is circulating an internal document including the “opt-out” proposal for food and feed imports, no change at all to the authorization process and changing the voting for member country committees to approve or reject an authorization application from the current qualified majority to a simple majority. A decision is expected in late April.
There are currently 17 applications for authorization of biotech traits waiting at the Commission to be approved. They have been determined to be safe by the EFSA, but were not approved or rejected by qualified majorities of committees of member countries. Some analysts believe that some or all of those applications will be approved before the rules are changed, but that same argument was made before the planting decision and turned to not be true as the Commission made no decisions on the 13 applications then on file.
Leaving these products unapproved for import has risks. For feed imports, the EU allows no more than 0.1 percent of unapproved varieties, if those traits are pending in the approval pipeline. The EU has a zero-tolerance policy for all other unapproved traits. As U.S. suppliers learned with China and MIR 162 corn, where the tolerance was zero, rejected loads of grain because of small amounts of unapproved biotech traits can be costly. Current EU laws require food companies to label any product that contains more than 0.9 percent biotech content, although meat from animals raised on biotech grain does not have to be labeled.
U.S. livestock and poultry feed commodity suppliers and EU feed manufacturers have sent letters to the Commission stating their concerns. In a mid-March letter to the Commission, the U.S. Biotech Crop Alliance stressed that this review of procedures for approval of imports adds uncertainty to a process that has been slow and suffers from political interference. The Alliance called on the EU to maintain a single market based on sound science and meet its WTO sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) commitments. A policy covering the low-level presence of biotech traits must be commercially feasible. The letter concluded by pointing to the market opening goals the Commission has for negotiations with the U.S. on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade agreement.
In late March, 14 European agri-food industries sent a similar letter saying that the Commission should be focused on timely approval of biotech food and feed products for import and not include a proposal to allow member countries to opt-out because that would fracture the internal market and jeopardize a founding principle of the EU. The EU groups also called for the Commission to allow for low-level presence of biotech products. The Commission has thus far has shown no signs that it is considering a change in that policy. The European agri-food industry groups have repeatedly asked the Commission to end what the industry letter calls a “‘de-facto’ moratorium on biotech trait authorizations” because none have been approved since November 2013.
While the EU Commission is hearing essentially the same message from both sides of the Atlantic, there is a concern whether anyone is listening. Inside U.S. Trade reported that the new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament last July before he took office, “The commission should be in a position to give the majority view of democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice, notably when it comes to the safety of the food we eat and the environment in which we live.” That may be popular in some parts of Europe, but is inconsistent with 40 years of international rules where science has won out over non-science, protectionist trade barriers. President Juncker directed EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Andriukaitis to conduct a review of the authorization process for biotech traits within six months of taking office in November 2014.
If the President’s views are representative of the other Commission members, this will be significant switch from past Commissions that have generally, with a few exceptions, come down on the side of science. This has far wider implications than just biotech crops; meat food safety and trade is one obvious issue. Negotiating trade agreements like TTIP or a restart of the WTO Doha Round would have added uncertainties. President Juncker does have a point in that most politicians will seldom go where they perceive the people do not want to go.
The question of importing biotech livestock feed will likely be settled as an EU domestic policy issue. As noted earlier, livestock and poultry production is heavily dependent on imported oilseeds, mostly soybeans, and high protein meals like soybean meal. Replacing them with domestic supplies is not doable at reasonable prices. Paying more to import non-biotech soybeans and meal would raise the cost of producing meat and lead to more imports raised on biotech corn and soybeans. Blocking those meat imports would have WTO trade commitment issues. If EU consumers want to primarily consume domestically produced livestock and poultry products and politicians want to avoid long-running trade policy issues, importing biotech feed commodities is the best outcome.
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.