SPEECH/ 09/474, 15 October 2009
Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the European Commission Responsible for Agriculture and Rural Development
Policy Dialogue at "European Policy Centre", 15 October 2009
Let me begin by thanking the European Policy Centre for organising today's event. In fact, this event is very well timed, because certain issues related to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are of critical importance for our farm sector right now.
So I really am very glad to have the chance to talk about them!
This afternoon we're asking whether GMOs offer "risks or opportunities". For many people, this is not a theoretical question. It is biting – and biting hard. To illustrate this, I’m going to ask you to use your imagination for two minutes.
Imagine that you're a European importer of soybeans.
You have a contract to supply a feed producer. You know that parts of the European livestock sector are going through hard times (especially the dairy sector). Farmers are relying on getting high-protein feed at a competitive price. For the protein component in feedstuff those soybeans are desperately needed, because there are no adequate substitutes.
You've arranged for a consignment to be imported from the United States. It’s ready to set off across the Atlantic. But there's a problem.
One of your colleagues in the trade has a cargo sitting in the docks at Hamburg and knows it will not be allowed into the European Union.
The cargo had been tested in the US for the presence of GMOs not authorised in the European Union, and none had been found. But when the cargo arrived in Europe, local testing methods found tiny traces of a GM maize variety.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had said this maize was not harmful to humans, animals or the environment; but the authorisation procedure had hit political resistance.
As the European Union applies "zero tolerance" to imports of unauthorised GMOs, the cargo had been grounded.
So, as the soya importer trying to fulfil a contract, what do you do? In the US, your cargo has also tested negative for unauthorised GMOs. But given the uncertainties associated with measurement, can you be sure that there won't be a different result in Europe?
Do you go ahead with shipment, taking the risk that European detection equipment will find traces of GMOs that were not found in the US? Or do you stop the shipment before it has even left port, and lose a lot of money?
This is a real question that real people have been facing, with real financial risks attached.
Since July this year, there have been about a dozen so-called "rapid alert" cases in which very small amounts of a GM maize variety, not yet approved in the EU, were found in soybeans or soymeal from the US.
This has led to serious problems of the sort I’ve just described.
So, with regard to agriculture, GMOs are throwing up various burning questions – and we're running out of time for answering them.
Let me leave my "role-play" situation behind for a moment and talk about general principles.
It goes without saying that we need reassurance over GMOs. Providing reassurance is the normal approach when we start to work with nature in new ways.
If we want to use new technologies on a large scale, we have to be clear about any risks involved.
Assessing risks is a task for science. And science is right at the foundation of the European Union's policy on GMOs.
If anyone has any doubts about whether this policy is serious about risks, they should look at the rules for themselves. Again and again they would find demanding principles set out very clearly.
On the one hand, if there is no scientific reason to ban a GMO, we authorise it. (By the way, that's in line with our obligations within the World Trade Organisation.)
But if any GMO is shown to have "adverse effects on human health, animal health or the environment", we will not authorise it. Look in the rules: it's there in black and white.
And this is not an empty phrase: we have the systems to back up these words.
Our system for authorising and managing GMOs is one of the most stringent in the world. We rebuilt it from top to bottom in the first half of this decade, to end years of political confusion and bickering. It revolves around independent scientific advice from EFSA and it's full of safeguards.
But now that we've created state-of-the-art machinery for handling GMOs, we're really struggling to use it as well as we could be using it – in other words, in a way that would fit in smoothly with trade in commodities with our global trade partners.
Month after month, GMOs receive a clean bill of health from EFSA, but then get stuck because Member States cannot reach any qualified majority, in favour or against, when it comes to the vote on a proposal for authorisation.
So first the relevant committee decides nothing; then the Council decides nothing; and finally, the Commission grants authorisation, as laid down in the rules.
This process swallows huge amounts of time. That would be quite legitimate – necessary, in fact – if new scientific information was being put on the table. But in the vast majority of cases, this is not what’s happening. Forget about being “lost in translation”: vital time is being lost in procedures.
The result is that a growing number of GM products are widely used in other parts of the world, but are not yet authorised in the European Union – 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. The technical term used to describe what is happening is "asynchronous GMO approvals".
"All things being equal" – as the phrase goes – asynchronous GMO approvals wouldn't be a problem. But all things are not equal. For the farm sector, the imbalance between the European Union and the rest of the world is a clear and present financial threat.
Let me explain a bit more why my "role-play exercise" about the soybean trader is so important.
In the European Union, production from farming with animals was worth nearly € 150 billion in 2008. And it makes a vital contribution to an agri-food sector which makes up about 4 per cent of European gross domestic product (farming and food production combined).
Europe's farm animals need a lot of protein. We have to import most of it because we don't have the capacity or the right farming conditions to produce the protein feedstuff needed on our own. (If you hear anyone suggest that we should become self-sufficient in protein crops, forget it: this is pure fantasy.)
Basically, for various reasons, we need to import most of this protein in the form of soya – either as beans or as meal. Over the last 9 years, on average we've imported the equivalent of 32 million tonnes of soybeans a year.
Our soya imports come essentially from two sources: South America, and the US.
In seasonal terms, these sources complement each other. We import from the US especially during the months November to March, when there's less supply from South America.
However, worldwide availability of soya for import is coming under pressure, for three reasons:
First , drought cut soya production in Argentina by 30 per cent in 2008/2009.
Secondly , stocks in South America are unusually small.
Thirdly , China's soya needs are rising.
For these reasons, during the coming winter, we will rely very heavily on beans from the US.
And here's the problem!
As I’ve explained, in a situation of asynchronous approvals, again and again tiny traces of GM maize have meant that soya imports couldn’t make it out of the docks once they got to Europe.
Let me emphasise again that the maize in question has received a positive safety assessment from EFSA, but it has not yet been authorised for use in the European Union because procedures have worked so slowly.
The traces were very small – often smaller, in fact, than what is commonly agreed to be the minimum level that we can reliably measure: namely, 0.1 per cent of the cargo.
But tiny traces became a big problem. Traders can't afford to risk seeing their shipments blocked, and they're talking of halting imports from the US altogether.
If this happens, in the current market conditions it would have a very negative influence on our livestock sector.
Even if we can get the soya from elsewhere – which is far from clear – our livestock sector would have to pay higher prices.
Perhaps you've seen on TV – or even in the streets! – that parts of the sector are feeling under pressure right now. The last thing they need is a rise in feed prices. For some of them, it could be the last straw.
Worse still, the current problems could just be the warning gust of wind before the thunderstorm really breaks.
The disruption that we saw over the summer involved just one supplier country (the US) and just one GM maize variety. But the rest of the world is authorising more GM crops without waiting for Europe to give the thumbs-up.
The European Commission's Joint Research Centre projects that the number of GM events used commercially worldwide could jump from about 30 now to over 120 by the year 2015.
In this scenario, we could see an explosion in the risk of trade disruption. This is something that the livestock sector just can't contemplate.
And before I talk about solutions, let's bear one more point in mind: if we let our livestock sector go to the wall, we would simply end up importing meat from animals fed on long lists of GMOs over which we would have no control. That would be the ultimate irony.
So what should we do?
Fundamentally, we must start using our authorisation system as it was designed to be used!
At almost every Council meeting I go to, I ask Member States to shoulder their responsibilities and take clear decisions.
I'm sometimes rather surprised by what I see, to say the least. It’s bad enough to abstain in the vote on a product authorisation which could make it so much easier to keep feed costs down, when the scientific evidence is clear. But does it make sense to do this and then ask later for export refunds for meat products, because your farmers can’t cope with high feed prices? There are moments when I think I’ve wandered onto the set of a TV comedy!
It's irresponsible to pretend that this behaviour will have no consequences. It has had consequences. It is having consequences. It will have consequences.
Let's end this ludicrous situation.
We must use the system that we ourselves created, in a rational way.
We must vote on the basis of science, not prejudice, when deciding whether to authorise new GM products.
And as soon as we can, we must also push ahead with our discussions on how to deal with very small unwanted traces of GMOs that are found in shipments.
I’m not talking about ending our policy of zero tolerance in this area: that’s out of the question.
What I’m talking about is applying this principle in a way that works in practice – with a technical threshold for measurement.
Where GMO traces are extremely small, we have to be confident about the detection methods used. If we allow a situation in which some recognised methods show positive test results but others don't, we're inviting confusion.
My final point for today is about the GMO-related issue where the debate is at its most furious: cultivation.
As you probably know, the Commission President recently made a statement about this. He recognised the extreme sensitivity of this topic. And he said a new approach should be possible.
On the one hand, we would keep a European-wide authorisation system based on science. On the other hand, we could allow Member States to decide whether or not they wish to cultivate GM crops on their territory. He has my full support on this.
Let's be clear, though, that approved GM products would still be traded freely within the European Union: it's out of the question to dismantle the single market in this area.
It's time for me to finish.
Do GMOs offer risks or opportunities?
Both, of course. And we must use clear judgment to identify them.
Without clear judgment, and without logical consistency in the way we use our own policy, we could end up being blind to opportunities, while running away from shadows – and stumbling into real economic disasters that we should have seen right in front of us.
We must be courageous and sensible about using the best guides that we have. We must let the voice of science speak – and act on what we hear.