Europe's battle over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) gets hotter by the day. The tense political and social battle could have long-term repercussions for U.S. agricultural products in this key market.
"The system is extremely difficult here. Parliament and the commissioners are heavily influenced by data they receive on consumers' beliefs about GMOs,” says Mark Andersen, American Soybean Association and United Soybean Board regional director of international marketing based in Amsterdam. "The last time the European Union [EU] approved a soybean trait was in 1998. A couple of years ago, they got a million signatures against GMOs.”
"We have somewhat reduced optimism on GMOs. We've been told that if there's a technical solution, it will be for feed only, not for food use. Our enthusiasm has been dampened somewhat,” says Geert Vanmarcke, international market adviser for Brussels-based FEDIOL, which represents the EU vegetable oil and protein meal industry.
Anti-GMO pressure remains intense, Vanmarcke says. "Greenpeace would like to have GMOs banned in the EU. The [European] Commission is very sensitive to everything coming out of that corner. Public perception is important. In an election, everybody is careful not to be seen as pro-GMO. Being pro-GMO more or less is considered to be political suicide.”
"The public perception is that GMOs are dangerous and there have not been long-term studies of them,” adds Pierre Tardieu, FEDIOL's assistant manager of trade affairs, who says politicians are handcuffed by the issue. "Certain EU member states are still very opposed to GMOs. This is a political climate rather hard to change.”
Consumers rule. "A number of scientific research studies show there's no danger in GMOs. But if they [consumers] don't want to eat them, what can we do? The introduction to the market was mishandled in the 1990s; it was done without proper discussion,” says Pekka Pesonen, secretary- general of COPA-COGECA, an umbrella organization for European farm groups and ag cooperatives.
"Farmers don't decide whether or not GMO is right. We listen to consumers. We want legal certainty and freedom of choice,” he notes. "We are not happy that we don't have either. Effectively, the current policy of zero GMO tolerance closes trade.”
For U.S. farmers, the Europeans' quibbling about GMOs means lost market opportunities. "The U.S. used to export a million tons of dried distillers' grains to Europe. Because they [the EU] didn't approve corn traits, they nixed that,” Andersen says. "Prices have nothing to do with it anymore. It's all about approved traits.”
Europe might have to rethink its anti-GMO stance if soybean-producing nations grow ever more GMO varieties, however. Vanmarcke explains why: "If we get more growing of GMO varieties in the U.S. and South America, varieties with traits not authorized in the EU, it would mean imports of soybeans and soymeal would have to stop. Those products would be illegal in the EU. The question then might be, why not use more European proteins? The answer is, there are simply not enough.”
Meat shortage. Combine the anti-GMO fervor with farmers reducing livestock numbers due to higher-priced and ever-scarcer feed, and it leaves Europeans facing reduced meat supplies, some observers believe.
"We are looking at the collapse of the livestock industry in Europe. There is sheer panic that we may be shut off on soybeans,” says Alexander Doring, secretary-general of the European Feed Manufacturers' Federation. "We're between the hammer and the anvil, and there is no strategy for what to do about it.”
- NOVEMBER 2008