EU Slowly Embracing GM

March 7/Guelph, Ontario.Guelph Mercury -- Some of the food seen growing or being raised locally does indeed end up on our own dinner plates. However, depending on the commodity, half or more of it is exported. So, when a wrinkle appears (or disappears) in the global food market, it is worth noting.

That is what is happening right now. Europe, a longtime stronghold against genetically modified food and, more recently, a major target for increased Canadian exports, looks as if it is taking a softer line on some aspects of food-related biotechnology.

European Union member countries have approved a proposal to allow the import of animal feed containing trace elements (up to 0.1%) of genetically modified material.

That opens the doors a little wider to the lucrative European market for animal feed, which, coming from Canada, may indeed contain some genetically modified crops.

At the Ontario AgriCentre, in Guelph, home of several commodity groups which export grain, they are not quite ready to break out the champagne. They know the proposal must still be approved by the conservative European Commission, which has traditionally struggled with a broad-brush approach to genetically modified food or feed.

That said, from their perch, there is reason for optimism. Don Kenny, chair of the Guelph-based Grain Farmers of Ontario, joined federal agriculture and agri-food minister Gerry Ritz and others in Europe in January to stump for this very concession. The fact that it is happening on the heels of that visit may be a combination of good luck and good management, but the fact remains that the EU is the largest export market for Ontario soybeans.

Kenny says even approving trace amounts of genetically modified material in grain shipments "would remove a barrier to future exports and provide security for Ontario grain farmers" -- not to mention farmers from the rest of Canada, who worry about genetically modified crops eliminating some export markets.

The mood is less cautious in Ottawa, where federal Trade Minister Peter Van Loan said prying open Europe's borders to freer trade with Canada would generate an estimated $12 billion in economic activity. He is encouraged by the EU's interest in accepting feed with trace amounts of genetically modified material, calling it "a sign of the increasingly strong commercial relationship (Canada) has with the European Union." The U.S. has traditionally been the focus of our exports, which makes sense. However, there are nearly twice as many Europeans as Americans, and in agricultural circles, that overseas market is generally regarded as a modern day Constantinople.

Even if the European Commission accepts the proposal from its member countries, though, it is a far cry from Ritz's goal of having much wider acceptance of genetically modified crops abroad. He says access for feed and industrial use is not enough for Canadian farmers, and vows to pound the table for greater access. "We will continue to push for a solution that respects sound science and reduces the trade barriers to our safe, high quality Canadian crops," he says.

Ritz wants the EU to avoid arbitrary, precautionary rulings against biotechnology products. His argument mirrors the position he took in the January trade talks in Europe, when he, Kenny and others worked to convince their European counterparts that biotechnology can exist within a conventional agriculture environment, with traditional crops.

From the March 21, 2011, Prepared Foods E-dition