When the European Union (EU) approved major biotechnology events (Monsanto's YieldGard VT Pro and YieldGard VT Rootworm/RR2; Syngenta's Agrisure RW; Roundup Ready 2 soybeans) last fall, it solved an immediate crisis for Europe's livestock and feed producers. It also suggests that change may be in the air for the EU's rigid policies on biotech crops.
The crisis erupted when EU importers rejected more than 7 million bushels of soybeans because of “miniscule” amounts of unapproved biotech corn. Fearing more blocked cargoes, U.S. exporters halted soybean shipments, and Europe's livestock industry suddenly faced a severe protein shortage.
The approvals are an important breakthrough but not the end of the issue, according to Jorge de Saja, general director of the Spanish Feed Industry Federation: “The good side is that the considerations are no longer philosophical or environmental but rather purely economic. European politicians finally faced the severe loss of competitiveness…even a real threat of losing our feed industry,” he says, noting that many public officials now take the economic implications of EU biotech regulations more seriously.
The 2009 approvals aren't the only changes in the debate environment. EU watchers cite growing efforts by Europe's agricultural sector to coordinate pro-biotech efforts. “If you look at the public debate and its effect on policymakers, much more attention is being paid to what the industry is saying,” reports Kyd Brenner, EU trade expert with DTB Associates.
There's some shift in European consumer attitudes, too, according to a variety of public opinion surveys. While most still have hesitations, about half say they are able to accept biotechnology, especially if it benefits consumers or the environment.
In 2009, biotechnology was near the bottom of the list of British consumers' food worries (22 out of 24), according to a survey by Britain's Food Standards Agency — although de Saja warns that this may reflect a loss of interest while consumers focus on other issues, rather than acceptance of biotech foods.
Meanwhile, biotech soybean products under development may help answer European consumer concerns, according to David Green, a soybean industry consultant on the EU. Green notes that about half of the soy biotech events in the pipeline focus on consumer benefits rather than agronomic traits.
He cites European interest especially in high-stearate beans (Monsanto, Pioneer/DuPont) and omega-3 stearidonic acid beans (Monsanto), both of which are due in the next decade.
Last winter, Sir Terry Leahy, chief executive of Britain's Tesco supermarkets, admitted his industry may have been too quick to oppose biotechnology, indicating Tesco is willing to re-open the debate. “It may have been a failure by us all to stand by the science,” Leahy says.
Despite positive signs, the battle over biotech is far from won, Green, de Saja and Brenner agree. Green, who regularly recruits U.S. farmers to do biotech outreach in Europe, warns that now is not the time to let up on educational efforts, especially since Europe's regulatory actions exert “tremendous influence” on other foreign markets.
Finally, a new European Commission took control of the biotech debate this winter. According to Esteban Alcalde, Syngenta's manager of regulatory affairs for Europe, it will face three major biotech-related problems: How to deal with very low levels of unauthorized GMOs in food and feed imports; whether to include socio-economic criteria in the process of assessing biotech products; and whether European member states should have the power to make individual decisions on the cultivation of biotech crops.