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Is Charles' Anti-GM Outburst Linked to India Business Plans? SC Issues Notice to Centre on Plea for GM Crops' Moratorium



EU Biotech Opposition Creates Quandary for Farmers
Matthew Dalton Dow Jones July 30, 2008

Europe's unease about genetically modified crops is threatening to create continent-wide shortages of soybean, a crucial component in the diet of Europe's livestock.

While the U.S., Argentina and Brazil, the world's main soybean growers, are preparing to plant millions of hectares of new biotech soybeans, deep divisions between the European Union's member countries on genetically modified crops have prevented these products from being cleared for import.

This is raising the possibility that E.U. livestock farmers won't be able to get enough soybean in the coming years, because importers won't ship to the E.U. for fear that their cargos could be contaminated with unapproved biotech soybeans.

The potential shortage is threatening livestock farmers, who've already been hit hard by rising fuel and feed prices. Significant increases in soybean prices would likely push up the cost of meat production, particularly pork and chicken, prompting a steep decline in European consumption and production of these products.

"It would be one more aspect making farmers unable to produce in Europe," said Alexandre Martin, of the Assemblée Permanente des Chambres d'Agriculture, which represents French farmers.

The issue has prompted debate within the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, on potential policy responses, including the idea of allowing trace amounts of unapproved biotech crops in agricultural imports.

"We need to make sure we can source sufficient quantities of soy and proteins from outside Europe," said Michael Mann, the European Commission's agriculture spokesman.

An analysis published in 2007 by the commission's agriculture directorate found that under a "worst-case scenario," in which soybean imports from the U.S., Brazil and Argentina are interrupted, European pork production would fall 34.7% in 2010 and poultry production would fall 43.9%. While Argentina and Brazil have in the past been careful about only clearing biotech strains that have been approved for import into the E.U., the emergence of China as a major soybean importer may make them less concerned about the European market, according to the analysis.

There are also doubts about Brazil's ability to control the planting of unapproved biotech crops, making importers reluctant to ship from the country to the E.U. because of the higher risk of contamination.

Solutions, however, aren't easy. The problem for the commission is that 58% of Europeans are opposed to allowing genetically modified crops into the food supply and just 21% are in favor, according to a poll released in March by Eurobarometer, the commission's public polling office.

These dynamics make it more difficult to get approval in the E.U. to grow or import biotech crops than almost anywhere else in the world. The process usually takes three years or more, while in the U.S., for example, it takes on average 16-18 months, say officials from the biotech industry.

Sometimes the process can last more than a decade. Chemical and biotechnology giant BASF last week sued the European Commission for not approving a genetically modified potato for cultivation in Europe, despite BASF having first submitted its application in 1996.

"Predictability is something we've never had the benefit of here in Europe," said Nathalie Moll an executive director at Europa BIO, which represents the biotech industry in the E.U.

These delays have already blocked U.S. corn growers from exporting to Europe, because there are too many biotech varieties approved in the U.S. that still aren't approved in the E.U. Europe has managed without U.S. corn because the continent can grow much of its own. But the situation is much more acute with soybeans.

The E.U. imports nearly 40 million metric tons of soy annually, or three quarters of its total soy consumption. Soybeans account for 55% of Europe's protein-rich animal feed, according to G.M.O Compass, a Web site sponsored in part by the European Commission.

Europe's livestock farmers switched to soybean feed after mad-cow disease outbreaks earlier in the last decade prompted the E.U. to ban the use of bone meal in animal feed. Soybeans have among the highest protein content of any vegetable, making them well-suited for feed and not easily replaceable, say farm groups.

There's currently one variety of genetically modified soybean planted throughout much of the world, Roundup Ready 1 developed by Monsanto, which has been approved for import to the E.U.

The soybean has been altered to resist the Roundup herbicide, also made by Monsanto. Farmers can spray the weed killer from above without worrying about damaging the soybean.

But two new varieties of soybean will be planted in the next year on millions of hectares in the U.S., and then in Brazil and Argentina in following years. Those are Roundup Ready 2, which Monsanto says yields 7-11% more than its predecessor, and LibertyLink, a variety developed by Bayer.

These crops appear likely get import clearance into Europe, as the E.U. took several steps this month toward approval - though there's still a question of whether Roundup Ready 2 will be approved for import by the fall of 2009, when the soybean will be harvested from 400,000-800,000 million hectares in the U.S.

But farmers and importers say the problem won't go away with the approval of these two varieties. Twenty-two other genetically modified soybeans are under development by the industry, according to the American Soybean Association, creating the possibility of uncertainty each year about whether the E.U. will approve a new soybean variety in time for the fall harvest in other countries.

"The European Parliament should give a mandate to the EFSA," said Henk Flipsen of the Dutch Feed Industry Association. "There shouldn't be a political period of one and half years, just talking, talking, and losing time keeping up with other partners in the world."

One solution being considered by the commission would be to set a tolerance level for the presence of unapproved GM materials in food and feed imports. This would allow soybean exporters in the U.S. to ship to Europe without the worry that a tiny amount of unapproved GM soybeans in the shipment would block the entire cargo from being delivered.

The proposal, however, has been delayed. It's unclear whether existing E.U. law allows the commission to set the tolerance high enough to make exporting practical from countries where unapproved biotech crops are grown.

And the parliament, where the Green party has significant power, is likely to oppose legislative changes that would allow a higher tolerance or quicken approvals.

If the issue isn't resolved, more farmers will go out of business, farm groups say, and the E.U. will increasingly be forced to import its meat from outside the E.U. - where animals will be fed with genetically modified crops anyway.

"I'm not sure consumers will care where their meat comes from," said Marie-Christine Ribera, director of commodities and trade at COPA-COGECA, which represents E.U. farmers, "as long as it's cheap."

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