EU farm chief stokes up pressure in GMO debate

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Europe’s farm chief waded into the EU’s long-stalled debate on biotech foods on Septe. 7, raising pressure to secure adequate animal feed supply in the face of a zero-tolerance policy on unapproved biotech material in imports.

Around eight EU countries backed views expressed by EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel that biotech approval procedures should be speeded up to avoid recent cases seen at EU ports where U.S. soy shipments were refused entry.

While the EU has approved a string of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – mainly maize types – by default rubber-stamps since 2004, it does not permit other GMOs, even in minute amounts, until EU approval for that product is given.

Speaking to the bloc’s 27 agriculture ministers, Fischer Boel said there was a need for the EU to act urgently, given the increasing risks of low-level presence of non-authorized GM varieties in animal feed. EU governments, she said, should “take up their responsibility” during future authorization votes.

That was a clear reference for a move to break Europe’s long-standing GMO deadlock, where a minority of biotech-sceptic states always manages to prevent a majority consensus, under the EU’s complex weighted voting system, to secure new approvals.

Fischer Boel drew support from Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Portugal, Romania, Spain, the Netherlands and Czech Republic, officials said. However, ministers from cereals powerhouses France and Germany did not speak during the debate, they said.

More than 200,000 tonnes of U.S. soy have been refused entry at EU ports in recent months after traces of unapproved GM maize varieties were discovered in them – raising fears among the EU feed industry that it will be unable to buy millions of tonnes of U.S. soybeans as planned in the next seven months unless the zero-tolerance policy on unapproved GMOs is somehow changed.

That looks unlikely at the moment, diplomats say – at least until the European Commission, the EU executive, begins its next period of administration in early 2010 with a new or reshuffled team of commissioners and political advisers.

LOW-LEVEL PRESENCE

While the Commission has said it will find a technical solution to what is known as “low-level presence”, nothing has yet happened. This comes under the remit of Fischer Boel’s colleague, EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, who also looks after the food safety policy dossier.

The most probable short-term outcome is for EU ministers to be asked to vote as soon as possible on authorizing imports of more GM maize types. That could happen as early as October.

Even if they disagree and produce no conclusion, as usual, it would give the Commission the legal power to move to a default approval, so relieving pressure on the feed industry.

Soybeans, and to a lesser extent maize, are a key issue since they represent the primary material used to make feed.

Since the EU’s three main country suppliers of soy, an ideal high-protein raw material for feed, mainly grow GM varieties, non-biotech soy has become increasingly difficult to source for the European Union’s manufacturers of animal feed.

Those countries are Argentina, Brazil and the United States.

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