Resistance to Biotech Threatens EU Feed and Livestock Industries

(Feed Info) -- The animal feed industry is well-placed to influence the turbulent changes taking place in the global agricultural sector but the European Union's hard-line stance on genetically modified organisms (GMO) risks seeing its farmers and feed producers left behind, warns EuropaBio's Willy De Greef.

The Secretary General of the European association for Bioindustries said the animal feed sector is a potent player in world agriculture but the global powerbase is gradually shifting to emerging economies in South America, Former Soviet Union states and especially Asia – due in part to their extensive use of GM crops.

Mr De Greef said: “Animal feed plays a huge role in the overall agricultural policy agenda because it is such a huge customer of the crop production sector. Some 25-30% of annual global production goes to animal feed, which is about 600 million tonnes. That gives the sector a lot of clout and therefore the feed sector is part of the innovation agenda.”

While the growth in importance of countries such as China, Brazil and India may be inevitable, the difficult challenges facing Europe’s feed manufacturers and farmers are exacerbated by the EU’s politically motivated opposition to GMOs, said Mr De Greef.

He points to forecasts that Brazil is trying to oust the US as the world’s leading exporter of agricultural commodities and that China, which was self-sufficient in soybean a decade ago, now imports some 30 million tonnes a year - 98% of which is used in animal feed – as two examples of this power shift in progress.

Mr De Greef said growing demand for meat from the more affluent economies of China and India was now a more important issue than biofuels.

He explained that China’s per capita annual meat consumption has more than doubled to 55kg in the last 20 years - adding that every extra kilogramme of meat consumed by the Chinese triggers a huge increase in demand for animal feed.

“In the last year, there has been a heated debate about biofuels and food cost but people forget that real revolutions in as big a sector as this often come from a trend that is invisible for a while until at some point you start running into supply problems,” he said.

“If the all the Chinese eat 1kg/year more of meat, that means that agriculture has to provide an extra 3-4 million tonnes of maize, wheat and soybean. You can do it for a number of years but then you see the demand curve of the meat industry and the supply curve of the crop industry intersect - and that is when you have price instabilities.”

In the midst of such fundamental changes, Europe’s almost total exclusion of GMOs means it will increasingly struggle to compete in an ever more competitive global agricultural marketplace as its raw material costs go up compared to other regions, said the 53-year-old who has worked for some of the world’s major biotech companies.

He said: “The priorities in food and feed production are safety – and quite rightly nobody wants to compromise on that - and then we want them cheap.

“GM crop producers have very much achieved the feed safety criteria and it is clear by the uptake in the maize and soybean sectors that they create an economic benefit to the farmers. To me the conclusion is clear - if the EU wants to keep those competitive advantages away from European farmers, it will have price consequences.”

He hopes this economic imperative will force a change from the EU and “will keep making the point” that not even EU scientists believe GMOs are unsafe. Hostility to GMOs within the European body is “to a large extent” politically motivated, believes Mr De Greef.

However, the recent announcement that the European Commission is committed to finding a technical solution to its zero tolerance stance on GMOs – which forbids the presence of even the smallest trace of biotech material in EU commodity imports- is good news and “long overdue”.

He said: “We are finally starting to be realistic in the commodity chain discussion that here zero tolerance doesn’t exist. It is simply not compatible with a large scale commodity trading system. The biggest step has been taken - that zero cannot work. It will take a while but we are going to come to a definition of low level presence for approved products. That will give industry the ability to calculate the cost of segregation.”

He explained that the method used to detect the presence of GMOs had improved from 0.1% a decade ago to one part in one million in some cases. In practical terms, this means dust from the shell of GMO soybeans left behind in a ship’s hold could cause an entire shipment of non-GMO soybean to be refused EU entry.

EuropaBio’s position is the world is presently struggling to produce enough food to meet demand in part because the dramatic increases in crop yields following the 1960s’ Green Revolution had flattened out by the 1990s. The best solution, said Mr De Greef, is to increase output by raising yields from existing land, with biotech as part of that solution.

He said: “If we want to provide food, fuel, feed and fibre then clearly we need to increase production and to do that there are only two options; either cultivate more land, which is inherently undesirable because of its impact on biodiversity, conservation etc., or increase yields on a given amount of land.

“And whoever chooses option two, chooses more rapid adoption of modern science and technology - which includes biotech among others. One of the things I dislike hearing is biotech solves or doesn’t solve the problem. Biotech is part of the total technology tool-kit with which we can increase productivity.”

The benefits brought by GM crops depend on those used, he said. Maize brings increased yields and soya decreased production costs. In the US, national average maize yield last year was 9.4 tons/ha, but the average in farm scale testing was almost 50% higher, and the highest yield on commercial farms was 18.7 tons/ha. These figures give some idea of the potential for further productivity gains.

Farmers in northern Argentina using biotech profit because they can grow both soya and wheat in the same year, thereby hugely increasing their yield, he said.

Europe could reap the same benefits, he added but believes the flow of technology has been stifled by the political process within the European Union.

Mr De Greef said: “Trends in cereal yield over the last decade in Europe have been flat. It doesn’t mean we do not have good researchers, it means we must re-establish a plentiful supply at a predictable cost. In order to do that we need to increase the movement of science and technology results from the laboratory to the farm.”