Negotiators for the U.S. and the EU are finalizing topics for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks that will begin in early July. Biotech crops will certainly be one of the key issues for both sides. A review to be published in the June issue of the journal Trends in Plant Science titled Paradoxical EU Agricultural Policies on Genetically Engineered Crops by researchers from Spain and the UK provides a minority view on EU biotech policies.
Case studies highlight regulations applied to foods grown in EU countries and identical imported products. The EU is undermining its own competitiveness in the agricultural sector. EU agricultural policy has laudable goals such as a competitive economy and regulatory harmony, but the outcome is a fragmented, contradictory, and unworkable legislative framework. The authors recommend adoption of rational, science-based principles for the harmonization of agricultural policies and explain the role of biotech crops in achieving EU agricultural policy goals.
According to the authors, the suppression of biotech crops in the EU is ideological rather than scientific driven, and done to a large extent by the organic food industry. The EU is becoming uncompetitive and isolated in the international markets, which thrive on innovation and technological development. For example, the EU has banned many pesticides, but approves the importing of food products treated with the banned chemicals. EU procedures for approval of biotech crops are the most restrictive in the world. The Amflora potato took 15 years to develop, 13 of which were required for regulatory approval.
The final decision for approval of a biotech crop is political rather than scientific. A scientific opinion on safety must be sought from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the official and expert scientific body charged with the task of safety evaluation in the EU. The opinion is based on expert panels that consider the available scientific evidence. Opinions of the EFSA are often ignored by national governments and the EU has recently approved a plan to allow governments an opt-out for the cultivation of approved biotech crops with no justification or evidence of risk.
EU policy officially supports the coexistence of biotech and conventional agriculture defined as the ability of farmers to make a practical choice among conventional, organic and biotech crops. The regulations were developed in response to organic industry groups which claimed that adventitious presence could reduce the value of a conventional or organic crop. This implicitly recognizes that coexistence is about economic impacts and not health or environmental safety since no biotech crops can be grown without a safety evaluation by the EFSA.
Stringent EU requirements
According to the authors, the adventitious presence thresholds in the EU are the strictest in the world – 0.9 percent applied to EU approved products and zero tolerance for products not approved by the EU. While there are scientific principles that can be used to establish acceptable minimum distances between biotech and conventional crops and other mitigation strategies to achieve these thresholds, individual national governments have imposed arbitrarily large minimum distances between conventional and biotech crops so that biotech agriculture is not an option. For example, in Luxembourg 2600 feet must be left between biotech and non-biotech corn and 1.8 miles between biotech and non-biotech rapeseed.
The EFSA has approved biotech crops as safe for human consumption. The authors note that even in the highly litigious U.S. there have been no lawsuits, no product recalls or reported ill effects since biotech crops were first grown commercially in 1996. EU policies on biotech crop imports are less restrictive than policies for cultivation of biotech crops in the EU because it is dependent on imports to maintain its livestock industry. Roughly 80% of the animal feed consumed in the EU is imported, of which more than half are biotech crops from the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina, the largest exporters of biotech crops. The importing of biotech crops is heavily controlled, causing logistic and economic problems such as the zero tolerance for the adventitious presence of biotech crops not yet approved for import into the EU, but approved in the exporting country.
Insect-resistant corn in the EU where it is allowed to be grown provides efficient pest control without pesticides and limits the impact of agriculture on non-target organisms, but the EU has missed out on wider uses. Insect-resistant biotech crops have reduced the use of pesticides in India and China and improved the environment and the health of farmers. Herbicide-tolerant crops in North and South America have promoted reduced/zero-tillage farming to reduce soil erosion and water contamination caused by agriculture.
Mycotoxin levels that can affect human health are much lower in biotech corn than in conventional corn. The EU goal is to reach as low a level of mycotoxins as can reasonably be achieved. Biotech Bt corn is resistant to insects that can cause kernel damage and allow penetration by mycotoxin producing fungi. MON 810 is the only biotech corn variety approved in the EU, but could soon disappear from the continent. To meet the EU’s stringent requirements for mycotoxin-free corn, the EU imports the MON 810 biotech corn variety and other more advanced Bt varieties.
On the surface, the U.S. and EU do not look like logical partners in trade and crop biotechnology. Many in U.S. agriculture are worried about becoming more regulated by governments like in the EU, while some European farmers worry about becoming more like the U.S. if they are to compete with the rest of the world. At a deeper level both sides seek economic efficiencies, safe and nutritious food and trade based on comparative advantage.
Governments in the EU and the U.S. recognize that they need to work out their differences on a host of trade and regulatory issues if both groups are to compete more effectively with the rest of the world. That is where the focus has to be as negotiators work through the issues, including biotech crops. The talks are not about one side winning and the other losing, but about both sides finding common ground to compete more effectively in a world more open to trade.
Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).
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