The European Union’s (E.U.) so-called "zero-tolerance" policy on non-approved genetically modified (GM) ingredients is creating a growing crisis for grain traders, seed processors, feed compounders and farmers in the 27 members states of the E.U.
Those stakeholders are losing patience with Europe’s politicians, who are carefully avoiding making decisions.
"Apparently this problem concerning GM is so difficult for European politicians that they ignore it," Pekka Pesonen, secretary general of the European farmers’ organization COPACOGECA, told World Grain.
In October, at the last meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers, the politicians present failed to make a decision even though the three varieties involved — MON88017 and MON89034, both developed by Monsanto, and 59122xNK603, developed jointly by DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred and Dow Agro-Sciences — had received a positive safety assessment from the European Food Safety Authority and undergone the full authorization procedure set out in E.U. legislation.
The European Commission, the E.U.’s civil service, responded by making the decision for them, authorizing the three varieties for food and feed use in the E.U. and for import and processing.
The move was welcomed by the agricultural supply chain in Europe, including farmers who are suffering from trying to compete in the livestock sector while supplies of animal feed are limited.
The problem is that much of the world’s feed ingredients go through a single supply chain, meaning the same elevators, trucks, railcars, loading facilities and ships. Combine that with the fact that modern testing techniques are very good and you get a situation of extremely high risk in the face of a "zerotolerance" policy that many believe is designed more to give politicians a great "soundbite" to placate anti-GM consumers than to create a workable regulatory framework for the grains and oilseeds industry.
As a result, the risk of zealous customs officials finding non-approved material in a load of non-GM maize (corn) or soybeans has become too great for many traders.
On Nov. 30, the European Commission announced that it had adopted a decision authorizing MIR604, a GM variety of maize developed by Syngenta, for food and feed uses and import and proceessing.
MIR604 maize received a positive safety assessment from the European Food Safety Authority and underwent the full authorization procedure set out in the E.U. legislation. As member states failed to return a qualified majority decision for or against this authorization in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, and then the Council, the dossier was sent back to the Commission for adoption.
The authorization is valid for 10 years, and any products produced from MIR604 maize will be subject to the E.U.’s labeling and traceability rules.
Alexander Doering, secretary general of the European Feed Manufacturers’ Federation (FEFAC), welcomed the latest Commission approval. "It will allow shipments which were blocked," he told World Grain.
"That is welcome. It’s a step forward in the right direction."
Doering is hoping that approval of the maize varieties will have a wider effect.
"If all these maize varieties are authorized, we may even see the resumption of trade in corn gluten feed and distillers dried grains," he said.
NEED FOR A WIDER SOLUTION
What all of the industry groups really want out of this is a long-term solution. Every time a new GM crop comes onto the world market, European feed ingredients trading is thrown into chaos while the European approvals process is held up by the politicians.
"This won’t take away the underlying legal uncertainty that even tomorrow cargoes may be blocked because of minute traces of unapproved GM events," Doering said. "That problem hasn’t gone away. We will continue with our campaign."
The problem is having effects on other crops.
"We’ve just lost linseed as a feed staple," he said. "Since the finding of trace levels of GM, the trade is virtually stopped."
Doering had a simple message for politicians.
"If you want the food and feed industry to continue supplying non-GM, you need to do something," Doering said. "Traces are bound to turn up in every food and feed supplied to the E.U. No one in the trade can guarantee zero levels."
He described the number of alerts sent out to the trade over trace levels of nonapproved GMOs as "exploding," with three times as many in 2009 as in 2008. "Even European products could turn up positive," he said. "With the efficiency of modern testing methods, if you look hard enough you’ll find it."
He doesn’t believe the current policy has many supporters; it is just a case of a shortage of political will to change it.
"Not a single member state would propose a zero-tolerance policy," he said. "We haven’t heard any member state saying that zero tolerance must stay. We’ll have to wait for the setting up of a new commission before anybody picks up the file.
"We’re basically looking for the beginning of next year. Now we’re looking at a caretaker commission, and they are banned from taking any new initiative. It’s bad luck for us."
However, Doering added, "We remain confident that our point will win the day in the end. It is not linked to GM. If tomorrow some of the national authorities find something in organic wheat from Germany, what then? We are still looking for a technical solution, admitting trace elements without a threshold."
In the longer term, he wants to see a threshold level of non-authorized GMO content, of which anything found below that level would be ignored. It would bring the E.U. into line with a long list of countries.
"Switzerland, Russia and Japan have done it, and now Turkey has a proposal," he said.
NOT JUST A FEED PROBLEM
Teresa Babuscio of the E.U. grain traders’ organization COCERAL pointed out that the problem did not just affect feed shipments.
"Soy is also used for food," she told World Grain. "It’s used to produce lecithin, for example."
Since mid-summer, soybean imports from the U.S. have been blocked because of the presence of traces of genetically modified maize, positively risk assessed but not yet authorized in Europe, detected in unquantifiable levels, Babuscio said.
The problem arose mainly in Spain, but has affected all shipments to the E.U. The uncertainty was too high, therefore they did refrain from importing.
"The dossier was officially passed to the Council on Friday the 30th of October, and it went through the Agricultural Council on the 20th November without reaching a qualified majority," she said. "We will do everything we can to persuade the Commission to authorize it quickly. If MIR604 will be authorized by the beginning of December, the crisis will be avoided at the last minute," she said in early November, prior to the Commission’s decision to approve MIR604 on Nov. 30.
"However, in light of the massive genetically modified events coming to the market place starting next year, it continues to be an urgent need to respect the timeline set up by the European legislation for the authorization of GMOs as well as to establish a low-level presence threshold for GMOs not yet authorized in Europe. "It’s unlikely that members will restart imports of soybeans before MIR 604 is authorized," she said.
The end customers of most soybean imports, the livestock farmers of the E.U., feel particularly aggrieved about this problem. "The impact of the current zero-tolerance policy will have approximately €1 billion worth of extra costs over the winter break of the E.U.," Pesonen said. "That’s based on the high prices of soy, especially for pigs and poultry but also for beef and milk."
He contrasted the small amount of attention those costs have received from politicians with the amount of thinking they did recently about setting up a €218 million fund for dairy farmers. "We are talking three times as much," he said. "The numbers are absolutely unbelievable."
Farmer representatives have been working on the problem for a long time. "Ever since 2007, when the previous temporary legislation was deleted, we saw this problem coming," he said.
To get this problem away from the table, he called for a technical solution that would define a threshold. "Seventy to eighty percent of the raw material that we use is imported from North or South America," he said. "We need those imports."
With livestock margins tight, the extra costs make a big difference to farmers’ incomes. But Pesonen isn’t convinced that consumers care. "If you multiply that two cents or four cents a kilo, you get the income of the farmer," he said. "Why should farmers have to pay for something that the consumer is not interested in?"
Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European editor. He may be contacted at