Wall Street Journal
By Caroline Henshaw
LONDON—After years of political wrangling by European Union policy makers, rising food prices may be putting genetically modified, or GM, food on the menu.
Officials are set to vote Tuesday on whether to allow trace amounts of unauthorized GM material in animal-feed imports, a move campaigners say could herald a shift in the bloc’s attitude to biotechnology and would mark a victory for the GM lobby, which has been pushing for a relaxation in the EU’s zero-tolerance rules on imports for years.
The pro-GM lobby argues current restrictions are hurting the profitability of raising livestock, in some cases making it uneconomic. The lobby says this puts thousands of jobs at risk by contributing to a supply crisis that is likely to raise meat prices for consumers already struggling with food-price inflation.
Anti-GM groups, meanwhile, say the EU measure, should it pass, is the thin end of the wedge toward easing other safety regulations.
“This clearly gives a political sign that the EU is willing to relax its attitude,” says Greenpeace’s EU agricultural-policy director, Marco Contiero. “You would be talking about a proposal that allows any completely untested GM crop to enter the food chain—it’s completely unacceptable.”
The use of biotechnology remains controversial. While pro-GM groups argue that GM food is already eaten safely by billions of people in countries including the U.S., opposition bodies say their long-term effects remain unknown and GM research reduces funding for other, safer methods of improving yields.
The EU authorized imports of several biotech crops in November in a bid to avoid a repeat of 2009, when cargos of soybeans from the U.S. were impounded due to traces of unauthorized GM material found in the shipments. The new proposals are meant to provide a longer-term solution to the problem by raising the tolerance margin for GM components in imports to 0.1% for varieties approved in the exporting country and for which EU approval is pending.
In the EU, anti-GM regulations are seen as putting extra pressure on meat prices as they present a potential barrier to the import of less-expensive animal feed from the U.S. and South America. The bloc relies on imports for almost 80% of its feed needs, but with grain prices at current levels, dealers are reluctant to commit to expensive shipments in case they are impounded.
Maintaining absolute purity in feed imports is particularly difficult because GM crops are widely grown in the EU’s main suppliers. Around 70 million hectares of U.S. farmland are sown with GM crops, including 85% of the country’s corn and 91% of its soybeans. With the use of biotechnology so widespread, critics of the EU rules argue that stopping contamination from traces of unauthorized GM material is virtually impossible.
“If people want to eat GM-free food they should be aware of how much it actually costs,” says U.K. farmer Paul Temple, who has grown GM crops as part of a government trial. “When wheat goes up from £100 a ton to £200 a ton you have to be very careful who you criticize.”
According to a person familiar with the matter, a show of hands at an EU committee meeting on the proposals earlier this month indicated that 243 votes would be cast in favor, close to the 255 votes—out of a total 345—that would be required to bring in the changes under the EU’s qualified-majority voting system.
While several outspoken opponents of GM crops remained firmly against the controls, including agricultural powers France and Poland, the U.K. and Ireland showed their support for the measures for the first time, the person said. Austria, previously an important anti-GM voice, also changed its position, counting for a crucial 10 votes in favor of the measures.
But while some see the proposals as a shift in sentiment, others say they don’t go far enough. “If Europe is serious about being able to feed its own population and recognizes that food security is an issue, putting up artificial trade barriers is a very serious issue,” says Julian Little, chair of the U.K.’s Agricultural Biotechnology Council, a pro-GM lobbying group.
Dutch officials in January sent a letter requesting that the proposals be widened to include foodstuffs for human consumption. They also argued for the acceptance of imports of GM crops from countries whose risk-assessment procedures for foodstuffs are as rigorous as the EU’s own.
“Grain shipments from third countries are indistinguishably used for food and feed purposes in the EU,” said a letter sent to the European Commission last year by ambassadors for the U.S., Brazil, Canada and Argentina. “Any attempt to separate into ‘food-only’ and ‘feed-only’ would pose insurmountable difficulties for trade operators and EU food and feed processors.”
Rising food prices are already causing problems for policy makers around the world. Battered by a succession of natural disasters that have slashed harvests in many key producers, world food prices hit a record high earlier this year, according to the United Nations. U.S. corn prices have surged 88% in the past year and soybean prices are up 43%. Sugar prices have doubled since the end of May.
Driven by surging demand from emerging countries like China, where increasingly wealthy consumers are gaining a taste for meat, many observers argue that GM technology could be a vital part of feeding the world’s rapidly expanding population. “We are looking at nine billion people in a very hungry world,” U.K. agriculture minister Caroline Spelman said at a conference this month. “It’s right to look at all the technology possible.”
Mr. Temple says that, so far, much of the EU debate around GM food has been driven by scare-mongering. But as consumers feel growing pressure on their wallets from rising food prices, they are likely to become more open to new technologies. “The moment commodity prices rise, people’s perception of what’s important change,” he says.
Still, most EU consumers remain deeply distrustful of GM technology. According to a survey last year by the EU’s public-opinion analysis arm, 58% of more than 26,000 respondents think GM food is unsafe and more than 60% said the development of GM food shouldn’t be encouraged.