By Diane Montague
Crucial decisions on the future for genetically modified crops in the European Union will be discussed by the European Parliament during this spring and summer. The discussions will cover details of proposed methods for labeling and traceability that could finally lead to lifting the moratorium on licensing new GM products, which has been in place since June 1999.
Finalization of these proposed methods, which were agreed upon by agriculture and environment ministers at the end of last year, coincided with the inauguration of a network of laboratories to track the use of GM crops in the food chain. The European Network of GMO Laboratories has been set up as part of a system of harmonization and standardization for sampling, detection and identification of GM material in the environment, food, feeds and seeds. As such it will act as a scientific and technical network to ensure excellence in the regulation of GMOs in the EU. There are 45 laboratories, of which 44 are in EU member states and one in Norway, plus observers from accession countries. The work of the laboratories will be coordinated by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre.
The laboratories will work to overcome the analytical problems of GMO regulations facing biotech companies, control authorities, importers and traders. By creating a strong network of scientists, it is hoped that the technical problems can be tackled transparently with flexible and manageable regulations that boost public confidence.
Speaking at the inauguration of the laboratories, EU Research Commissioner, Philippe Busquin, welcomed the political agreement on the GMO labeling regulations reached by the Agriculture Council at the end of last year. But, he said: "Whilst robust legislation to regulate the use of GMOs in food and feed is necessary, it is not enough on its own. We have to enforce legislation and develop reliable, validated tests to verify compliance." Busquin said he was confident that the network of laboratories would greatly improve the EU’s capacity to detect and screen GMOs and provide a sound scientific basis for enforcing biotechnology legislation.
"The creation of the network of GMO laboratories provides us with an important tool to ensure that we harvest the potential that biotechnology holds for consumers in a responsible way," he continued.
The laboratories are planned to create a unique platform for experts to develop methods of qualitative and quantitative analysis, molecular biology technology transfer, tests for efficiency of screening methods, sampling techniques for commodities, establishment of databases and training.
The proposals on labeling requirements agreed by the EU agriculture ministers are designed to ensure that consumers are given the right to choose whether or not to eat foods containing GM ingredients. Under the proposals, all foods and animal feeds (included in the proposals for the first time) containing more than 0.9% of GM materials must declare the content on the label. This will include processed food products such as maize or soybean oil, even though traces of GM cannot be detected. However, the ministers rejected proposals to label meat, eggs and dairy products produced from animals fed with GM crops. They also set a tolerance threshold of 0.5% for the accidental inclusion of GMOs that have been cleared as safe but have not been granted formal licences.
Commenting on the development, the EU’s food safety commissioner, David Byrne, said the regulations would enhance consumer choice and provide the farmer with useful information.
For traceability, the environment ministers agreed on proposals that would require all shipments containing GMOs to carry a unique code that identifies the GM material. This code will have to follow the material through the animal feed and food chain so that it will be possible to trace material back to origin if problems arise. Records must be kept by growers, transporters, merchants and processors for five years. Food and feed containing less than 0.9% will be exempt.
Following the agreement on the proposals, Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said everything was now in place to allow ministers to lift their moratoriums. At present seven countries — Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg — have maintained moratoriums on GM crops since 1999 despite the fact that they were approved by scientific advisers. This has effectively prevented the operation of the single market because these countries would not accept feeds or food containing GM material. France and Italy in particular argued that they would not relax their restrictions until labeling and traceability rules were in force.
The proposals on labeling and traceability, however, have to still be approved by the European Parliament. Detailed texts are expected to be submitted as World Grain went to press in March. The first section to be considered is expected to cover sampling procedures. However, it is likely to be July at the earliest before final details of the regulations emerge — if the Parliament approves them. They could then still be challenged by the agriculture and environment councils.
The most difficult, and those which are expected to cause the food and feed industry the biggest problems, are the regulations on traceability. Most experts believe it is unlikely that even if procedures are agreed upon, the mechanisms for allowing the use of new GM crops in the EU will be in operation before mid-2004 at the earliest. If discussions are prolonged they could be held up by the next parliamentary elections in 2004.
In the absence of any detailed information, trade organizations say they are unable at the moment to provide any specific information on how the regulations will work in practice. More than a thousand organizations involved in the international trade in feed and food grains are working through the International Grain Trade Coalition that was formed to focus on the practical implementation of the Biosafety Protocol, an international treaty that will govern the movement of GMOs. Founding members include the Canadian Grains Council, the North American Export Grain Association, the Grain and Feed Trade Association and COCERAL, the Brussels-based European grain and animal feed organization.
Among the many issues covered by the Protocol are proposals for cargo documentation that will be almost impossible to fulfill without international agreement on acceptance thresholds.
COCERAL says the regulations will have a huge impact on trade but it is very difficult at the moment to be more specific about the practical implications until more details are available. They will be working on the implications as soon as the drafts for discussion by the European Parliament are ready. They too expect the biggest problems to arise from traceability.
U.S. Wheat Associates says that while there is no transgenic wheat commercialized in the U.S. (and Monsanto has delayed its target introduction dates to meet the concerns of U.S. customers) the proposals will, eventually, cover GM wheat. The organization does not, however, believe that GM wheat would have a big market in the E.U. in the forseeable future.
The group said the basis of any changes would be tackled collaboratively in the same way as had been done in the past. An example is the Overseas Varietal Analysis program under which samples of new wheat varieties are supplied to European millers for testing and evaluation. Their findings are fed back to the breeders, producers and grain trade in the U.S. This benefits both producers and consumers — consumers are able to get a good look at some of the new wheat varieties in the pipeline and are then able to plan ahead for some new opportunities. They are able to experiment with different qualities that they would not normally purchase and can help guide wheat development programs in the U.S.
"For decades we have taken a collaborative approach in the E.U. as elsewhere and that isn’t likely to change," U.S. Wheat said.