July 11, 2011
EU accepts new GMOs tolerance level in feed
The European Commission last week formally approved a new low-level tolerance for unapproved genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in livestock feed, a measure observers said would help avert disturbance in trade that used to hinder US commodities exports.
However, they also said that because the tolerance level of 0.1% referred to by the commission as "technical zero" is so low that the commercial benefits of the new regulation for US exporters would be limited.
One grain industry source said the only practical usefulness of the regulation would be in cases where a shipment contained dust or extremely small amounts of unapproved GMOs that had not been thoroughly cleaned out from prior cargo.
That was the case in 2009, when shipments of US soy had to be turned away because they contained dust from an unapproved type of corn, recalled US State Department senior biotechnology adviser Jack Bobo.
Currently, all the main GMO varieties for soy and corn that are approved in the US are also approved in the EU. However, the new low-level tolerance policy is still useful because the US could approve new varieties in the future that the EU would be slower to act on, one industry source said.
However, once the US ramps up production of a non-EU approved variety, it is likely that the low threshold would still pose a problem, he explained. There are no GMO wheat types currently on the market, this source added.
The US sends Europe a significant amount of soy but comparatively little corn, according to EU statistics. In 2010 the EU imported 2.9 million metric tonnes of soy and one million metric tonnes of soymeal, making it the US soy industry's fourth-largest market behind China, Mexico and Japan.
By comparison, the US sent the EU 0.25 million metric tonnes of corn out of a total of 50 million metric tonnes exported due to differences in the timing of GMO approvals, the US has mostly been out of the market for corn since 1998 and for corn byproducts since 2007, one source said.
Bobo and industry sources pointed out that the new technical zero only changes the allowance for livestock feed, but does nothing to affect the EU zero tolerance policy for GMOs in food for human consumption.
As for the 0.1% limit, the commission represented the change as offering a clearer definition of zero. In a June 24 memo announcing the new regulation, it said the rule does not deviate from the EU law's zero tolerance policy but instead defines it in realistic and operational terms.
The new regulations also state that EU member states will adopt harmonised rules for the interpretation of testing results to ensure uniformity. But an informed source in the EU said he expected that different member states would show different levels of flexibility, depending on domestic politics.
Authorities in a country like Spain, for example, might be more willing to allow in feed shipments within a wider margin of error from 0.1%, whereas those in countries where the GMO issue is more politicised like Germany or France might be stricter.
"It gets rather vague when you start defining zero," he said.
Industry sources agreed the step was symbolically significant in that showed recognition on the part of the commission that meeting a zero tolerance policy is not always feasible. They also hoped that this would lead to incremental progress toward reforming the bloc's complicated GMO approval system.
The regulation has been under the scrutiny of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers for three months, according to the June 24 memo. As neither objected during that time frame provided by EU law, the regulation was formally adopted last week.