Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=220635
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Farmers are continuing to deal with confusion resulting from the European Union's policies over genetically modified crops.


Farmers’ planting decisions complicated by European Union’s GMO policies

by Leslie Schichtel
Apr 25, 2013


Midwestern farmers are in for a perplexing planting season. The economy is uncertain, and dicey weather has kept farmers out of their fields. Those two problems alone have raised concern about yields and exports.

Now throw in the subject of genetic engineering. Add to that the moving-target policies of the European Union and its 27 countries. Normal planting decisions are spiraling into a jigsaw puzzle.

The problem begins with the European Union, which still has not adopted the practice of genetically modified crops (GMOs). Though the EU hasn’t banned GMOs, it does have a strict regulatory-approval process.

In a case study released Thursday, scientists in Trends in Plant Science recommend the EU support GMOs if it hopes to meet agricultural goals.

In the meantime, the decision to refuse GMOs is complicating Midwestern farmers’ planting decisions.

“There are certain products that U.S. farmers can grow and export to the EU that are GMO,” said Alan McHughen, a plant biotechnologist at the University of California, Riverside. “The EU has approved these, so legally there’s not a problem.”

However, the EU’s sentiment towards genetically modified crops negatively affects farming in America, McHughen said.

“There are problems with the negative public sentiment in Europe toward GMOs,” he said.

European countries are reluctant to buy genetically modified food products, such as corn and soybeans. This negatively influences American farmers because they don’t sell as much as they ordinarily would, he said.

“American, Canadian and Argentinian farmers make decisions based on where their markets are,” he said. “These countries may not plant as much if they know European countries are hesitant to buy.”

This influences the development of new crops using genetic engineering technology, he said.

“Developers may say that because Europe is an important market, they aren’t going to develop a variety of corn, cotton or minor crops like canola,” he said. This means that American farmers don’t have access to the most modern plant varieties if they are genetically engineered and if Europe has a market for those, he said.

The benefit to genetically modify crops is an increase in healthy yields.

“Any time there’s a fungus or weed problem, if you can get a biotech product resistant, you don’t have to use pesticides because the crop grows healthy on its own,” said Tamara Nelson, senior director of commodities at the Illinois Farm Bureau.

“The Midwest has a lot of crops that have protection from two main insects in corn,” said Frederick Below, Jr., a plant physiologist at the University of Illinois. By not using GMOs in Europe, he said, they’re giving up a lot of yield. “They are back in the Dark Ages,” he said.

Poorer countries feel the consequences most, McHughen said. Europeans have threatened some countries that they won’t import their agricultural products if they start using GMOs, he said.

“It’s a scary thought because the fear is that the EU won’t import anything—even if the specific crop is not genetically engineered,” he said. This has a chilling effect and keeps poorer countries in a desperate situation because the GMO could help feed their population and increase productivity, he said.

The EU’s philosophy on this has changed a lot in the past 15 years, Nelson said. It has been importing soybeans for twenty years, she said.

“The Union idea has gone out the window because they aren’t all following one path,” she said. “There’s a patchwork of regulations that have grown up.”

Several countries, including Spain, Germany and Ireland have either approved or are already using genetically modified crops, she said.

“We don’t have a terrible concern if some of the European countries want non-GMOs,” Nelson said. “We are able to sell elsewhere to countries that approve it.”

“The worst part of the concern over biotech products in the Union is that farmers in Europe are not able to buy genetically modified wheat or corn,” she said. “Some countries can’t buy it or can’t grow it, so they just aren’t as competitive.”

Still, the pressure for the EU to get on board with GMOs continues to grow.

“Hopefully the EU will have to adopt biotechnology,” Below said. “There are just so many benefits in terms of yield—it’s just a matter of time.”