Europe"s rocky relationship with biotech continues

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 16, 2014 - U.S. negotiators appear to be running into a stone wall in their bid to open up Europe to genetically modified crops (GMOs) in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

“On this point, Europe will not be able to move,” Paola Testori Coggi, the Italian director general of the European Union's main consumer and health agency, said of the EU's position on GMOs.

Genetically modified crops are rarely approved in the EU, with only two green-lighted for planting, though 49 varieties have been OK'ed for animal feed. Still, U.S. negotiators in the talks to establish a free trade zone with the EU reportedly have set the relaxation of rules against GMOs as one of their top priorities. But things aren't going well in that endeavor.

Lets Talk Food

Take, for example, the opinions of Pascal Lamy, former World Trade Organization director-general and a staunch advocate for opening up world markets as a means to promote global prosperity. In theory, that would include biotech crops. But Lamy is also wary of the TTIP negotiations.

EU policies governing GMOs are “culturally tinted,” the Frenchman said at the Forum for Agriculture in Brussels earlier this month. He said that Europeans' preoccupation with GMO safety is a consequence of having the money and time to choose what kind of lives they want to lead - including what kinds of food to consume. “If you can start having dreams, you can start having nightmares,” he said. “Values matter.”

Europeans' are suspicious of biotechnology. That precautionary principle, officially adopted by the European Commission in 2000, guides European regulatory thinking and, to some minds, makes its member states notably more risk averse. The principle instructs regulators to err on the side of caution when potential dangers have been associated with a given technology, even if scientists cannot verify any link.

Perhaps more importantly for regulators, the same treaty that officially adopted the precautionary principle as an idea governing policy also urged politicians to make risk assessments more “multidisciplinary, independent and transparent” to the public. That implicitly invites the public to chime in on regulatory issues, injecting an air of the political into European agencies. That's not a criticism confined to the EU - many say the political appointment system for U.S. regulatory agencies like the EPA and FDA creates similar problems.

But for agricultural biotechnology companies, increased public participation in the regulation of its products in Europe is not good news. According to a 2000 Harvard Business Review article, only 12 percent of Europeans trust their regulators, while 90 percent of Americans believe the USDA's generally positive stance on biotechnology.

The European public has felt “betrayed,” so to speak, by their regulatory bodies in the past, which has not helped biotechnology's case. In 1982, British officials assured EU Commissioners that an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, was not dangerous to humans. In 1996, they backtracked, announcing that ten humans had contracted a disease associated with BSE.

“It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the regulatory failure associated with BSE on the attitude of the European public toward GM foods,” authors of a Council on Foreign Relations report wrote in 2011. “This was especially true in Britain, where unfavorable press coverage of agro-biotechnology increased substantially following the BSE crisis: between 1996 and 1998 the percentage of those strongly opposing genetically modified foods rose from 29 percent to 40 percent.” And BSE has never been associated with biotechnology.

Still, Europeans farmers seem to want biotech, though perhaps not as strongly as their U.S. counterparts. “[W]ere it up to European farmers, genetically-modified seeds would have found a substantial market in Europe, though perhaps less extensive than in the U.S.,” the authors of the report noted.

Meanwhile in Brussels, USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Foreign Agricultural Services Darci Vetter said EU and U.S. biotech safety evaluations “are not that different.” And she seemed optimistic that the two sides could achieve regulatory harmony, a new goal as they approach their fifth round of TIPP negotiations.

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