Science - November 10, 2015

World trade needs uniform GM rules

Albert Sikkema

The European Union and the United States want free trade with each other. The big question is how you can prevent genetically modified food and livestock feeds coming in contact with GM-free goods. The thinking is that uniform rules would help, but they still seem a long way off.

Just as the negotiations on the free trade treaty TTIP between the EU and the US are in full swing, Wageningen UR is hosting a conference about a potential spanner in the works: the coexistence of food chains with and without genetic modification (GM). The key question is how economic superpowers can harmonize their policies on this point within the trade treaty. A thorny question because opinion is divided when it comes to GM. Not only between the US and Europe but also within the EU.

Two weeks ago the European parliament rejected another proposal from the European Commission to start allowing EU countries to decide for themselves whether to authorize imports of GM food and livestock feeds. Ruud Tijssens, director of the Agrifirm group and chair of the European federation of livestock feed producers FEFAC, is pleased with the rejection. Agrifirm has several livestock feed factories in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium and would hate to see each country introducing its own rules for the import of animal feeds. The rejection has also saved the common European market for the present.

Market disruption

Tijssens is not sanguine about how this will end, however, because the EU countries are still deeply divided on the acceptance of GM crops. The political debate on genetic modification has been at an impasse for years. One result of this is that the EU cannot complete the authorization procedures for various new genetic varieties, leading to a huge backlog of applications and disruption of the world market.

European livestock feed products are affected by this, as became clear a few years ago when the European livestock feed sector showed an interest in the ingredient DDGS, a protein-rich waste product of bio-ethanol production, mainly from GM maize. That maize was not authorized by the EU. The GM feed was already being shipped to other parts of the world but within the EU there was a zero tolerance policy. This was a headache for traders because a little feed always got left behind in the cargo ships. When a batch of DDGS was rejected for that reason, the traders considered it too risky to import DDGS to Europe. They were forced to buy expensive wheat instead. Tijssens: ‘The manufacturers recouped the extra costs by charging livestock farmers more for feed.’

For the sake of clarity: FEFAC is not against genetic modification. Tijssens: ‘We supply the market. There are consumers in the EU who are against GM and there are consumers who don’t see any problem with GM. There are commercial feed chains available for both groups of consumers. These market segments exist.’


The coexistence of these GM and traditional food chains are the centre of attention at the international conference on ‘Coexistence in International trade’, to be held in Amsterdam between 17 and 20 November. At the conference international researchers and business managers will discuss how you can streamline regulations in food chains. The issue is not so much one of reducing the number of rules, says Wageningen economist Justus Wesseler, co-organizer of the conference, as one of harmonization. Because if there is one thing that hampers international trade, it is the different regulations in every country.

Those differences show up very clearly for GM food. Food producers in the EU must indicate with labels on the packaging if there is GM food in the product; in the US they don’t have to. But the European companies don’t have to state that milk, cheese or meat comes from GM sources. Under pressure from campaigners this is becoming an issue and you can see European food producers showing their true colours, says Wesseler. The British supermarkets Tesco and Sainsbury’s, for instance, bought exclusively GM-free chicken for a while. But they changed their minds when they found they could not recoup the higher costs of the non-GM feed.

This demonstrates that in practice European supermarkets often call the tune on the supply of GM products. That is different in the US. It is commonly thought that the US is pro-GM but the reality is more complex. Almost all livestock feed is GM and there is a lot of GM maize in foods, but no GM wheat is grown. A GM potato has been developed but is not yet being grown, partly because the market leader McDonald’s is worried that consumers don’t want GM fries. What is more, the American rules for testing the safety of GM crops for humans and for the environment are just as extensive as the European rules.

Higher standard of living

So the TTIP agreement with the US is not likely to lead to lower standards of food safety, reckons Wesseler. But it would be nice to have uniform standards. Wesseler: ‘Agreeing with the US to test GM food and measure things like CO2 emissions from cars in the same way will raise standards of living, even if you opt for the most stringent test. A German study showed that harmonizing the regulations with the US would raise the standard of living in Germany by five percent.’

European livestock feed manufacturers are eager for clear regulations too. Tijssens: ‘Currently, if we launch a new premix on the American market, we must go through a different regional distributor in each American state. We want to get rid of those kinds of transaction costs.’

International conference ‘Coexistence in International Trade’, 17-20 November in Amsterdam. See