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Trade Chaos Looms as GM Crops Proliferate

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Paul Voosen,  Nov. 2, 2009

'Europe can't feed its pigs -- at least, not by itself'

Meat-hungry and short on animal feed, European nations have relied for years on protein imports, such as the ground meal of soybeans from the United States, to sustain their cattle and pig farms. While this complex chain of trade has worked reasonably well, it has started to be threatened by a microscopic foe: the dust of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Since July, European regulators have stopped at least a dozen shipments of soybeans or soy meal from the United States, according to the European Union. Border agents blocked the shipments -- totaling more than 200,000 tons -- after finding minute traces of GM corn that, while approved in the United States, had not been cleared for import in Europe.

This crop gap between the United States and Europe has been growing starker each year, and an emergency could be imminent, according to Hilde Willekens, a governmental affairs director for the seed firm Syngenta AG.

"When is the crisis big enough to become a problem? This summer, large cargos have been held in Germany and Spain," Willekens said. Without U.S. soybeans, the whole feed market could collapse, and yet Europe "doesn't respond as if it is important," she said.

Soy shipments have been stopped in Spain, Germany and Denmark, all of which found traces of a new breed of GM corn developed by Monsanto Co. While the company long ago sought approval for the corn in Europe, it languished in the bloc's convoluted approval process and was finally approved Friday.

Almost invariably, traces of this dust have mingled in the long progression soy makes from U.S. fields through grain elevators, freight trains and ocean vessels across the Atlantic. Since Europe has zero tolerance for importing any unapproved GM crop, the dust was enough to bring the soy trade to a screeching halt.

"This summer was the first time we realized that you can find one crop in another as a low-level presence," said Emilio Rodriguez Cerezo, an E.U. researcher. "The boats are not fully cleaned."

Added Bryan Endres, an agriculture law professor at the University of Illinois: "It's a real concern to the industry because once the cat's out of the bag, it's hard to put it back in. Once these [crops] are in the commodity system, it's hard to resegregate them out."

The European Union -- which, given its hodgepodge federalism, may work best in a crisis -- did finally hear the multitude of complaints from its feed importers. For the past two months, the European agriculture minister, Mariann Fischer Boel, berated and spoke darkly of what could occur if Monsanto's corn is not approved quickly.

Month after month, genetically modified organisms receive a clean bill of health from Europe's food safety agency, and yet the member states lack the political will to rule for or against them, Boel said at a policy dialogue this month in Brussels.  The problem will only get worse, Boel warned.  "For the farm sector, the imbalance between the European Union and the rest of the world is a clear and present financial threat," she said.

'A never-ending story'
The problems that Europe has had with corn dust are only a foreshadowing of the trade chaos that is due to follow a rapid increase in the number of GM crops, experts say_. _Across the globe, countries are unprepared for the stress new crops will put on their trade and their time_.

A rich pipeline of GM crops is emerging from countries that have previously produced little in the way of new research. China, Brazil and Argentina are investing heavily in the field, inserting new traits in rice, tobacco, sugar cane and cassava, for example.

Currently, there are some 30 GM crop traits that are used worldwide. Within five years, there will be more than 120 such traits, according to a report issued by the Joint Research Centre, the European Union's scientific research service. "The result is that a growing number of GM products are widely used in other parts of the world but are not yet authorized in the European Union," Boel said, "not because we've found evidence of risk but because the political decision is being knocked around like a ball in a slow-motion tennis match." Cerezo, one of the JRC report's lead authors, added, "It's become clear that everything affects everything. You need to see it globally."

While the problem with Monsanto's corn may be resolved, another imbalance is sure to pop up, he said. "Then will come another one," Cerezo said. "It's a never-ending story."

The problem will not be limited to the European Union. The United States' policy for unapproved imports is identical to Europe's -- zero tolerance. This has not been an issue, since the United States has been the home base for the world's GM crops. But that will change, said Endres, the University of Illinois law professor.

"When we start importing crops from other countries that have advanced their biotech programs ... we're going to be at the other end of the equation," Endres said. "We're not always going to be the GM exporter."

Currently, most GM crops are developed by multinational chemical or seed companies like Monsanto or Syngenta, which seek broad approval for their products worldwide. But by 2015, half of all GM crops will stem from Asia and Latin America, designed for local markets, the JRC report found. "It seems very improbable that all these new GM crops will be submitted for approval," the report says, warning that would make future trade disruptions far more likely.

There are no easy answers for the problem.  For example, it has become more common to "stack" genetic traits, such as herbicide resistance, in single plants. In Europe, each new stacked GM plant requires a separate review, which will cause an even heavier workload for regulators. The United States, meanwhile, allows stacked GM plants with previously analyzed genes to pass with low levels of review, causing outrage from environmental groups.

One seemingly simple way to prevent future trade flare-ups would be for both the United States and European Union to adopt thresholds for the presence of unapproved GM crops. Most of the percentages detected during the soy-meal fears were below 0.1 percent -- lower than what can be measured without scientific doubt.

Regulators and consumers need to understand that no such thing as "absolute purity" exists in agriculture, said Kimball Nill, the technical issues director of the U.S. Soybean Export Council.  Farming is a dirty, mixed-up process. There are thresholds for all sorts of other products, like stones or rat feces, for example.  "In theory, 2 percent [of the soy meal] could be topsoil," Nill said.

Mix-and-match results
The largest frustration faced by importers and exporters on both sides of the Atlantic is the sheer uncertainty that can come when unapproved GM crops are floating through the system. It is not uncommon for a shipment to test GM-negative at a U.S. port and GM-positive once it has reached Germany.

With such mix-and-match results, economic liability becomes a major concern, said Endres, the agriculture lawyer.  "Who's responsible at that stage? Who's responsible for the loss?" Endres said. If the crop is refused by regulators, "the liability is tremendous."

False positives are a real concern, since regulators "are working at the lowest level of the detection method," Cerezo said. Different laboratories have different definitions of what is the presence of GM genes and what is not. There is no harmonization of standards, he said.

Animal-feed markets are particularly sensitive because increasingly, there is not enough protein to go around. China has discovered a taste for meat, in a big way, and has begun sucking in imports from North and South America that might have previously gone to Europe.

During the soy troubles, pork producers, which have to make contracts for months in advance, were stressed and threatened swearing off U.S. imports entirely. There were projections that feed could triple in price.

"The operators that import feed from the United States or Argentina are suffering from instability," said Cindy Boonen, a policy adviser at Belgium's Flemish Agriculture Department. "They're running a large risk buying a product they may have to send back."

But given the few European sources, feed companies have little choice but to gamble -- successfully, this time -- that the crisis would be solved.

Few doubt that similar problems will arise in the future, and yet there has been little movement, on either side of the Atlantic, toward establishing a threshold for the low-level presence of unapproved GM crops. In Europe, where GM products remain hugely unpopular, don't expect progress anytime soon, the industry says.  "The backlog is simply enormous," Syngenta's Willekens said. "If there is no administrative action to move the process quicker, we will continue to have problems."