European consumers don’t approve of genetically engineered crops, but European farmers are eager to feed them to their livestock, according to a USDA report.
As a result, Europe poses an economic opportunity for U.S. farmers while the threat of a consumer-driven trade disruption looms over exports of biotech crops, experts say.
“As the global cultivation of GE crops expands, it is increasingly difficult for European importers to source non-biotech soybean products. Their availability is declining and prices are on the rise,” according to the new report from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
Soybeans are a common livestock feed in the European Union, which is trying to boost its production of conventional and organic varieties of the crop, the report said.
European farmers are expected to annually harvest 2.2 million metric tons of soybeans in 2016 and 2017, up from 1.8 million metric tons in 2014 and 2015, USDA said.
Even if they succeed, however, that production will still be dwarfed by the 32 million metric tons of soybeans the continent imports annually, the report said. Much of those imports come from the U.S. and other countries where a majority of commodity crops are genetically engineered.
Meanwhile, the prospect of developing genetically engineered crops suitable for growing in Europe has ground to a halt, the USDA found.
“Repeated vandalism of test plots by activists, together with the uncertainty and delays of the EU approval process, makes genetic engineering an unattractive investment,” the report said.
While the European Union is a reliable market for U.S. soybeans and corn byproducts, such as distillers dried grains from ethanol production, the situation is precarious, said Mary Boote, executive director of the Global Farmer Network, a pro-trade and pro-GE nonprofit.
“It’s a mixed bag,” she said. “We’re only one GMO ban away from not being viewed as reliable.”
In 2017, for example, Poland is scheduled to prohibit the import of livestock feed produced from biotech crops, according to FAS. In the past, though, the ban has been twice delayed due to opposition from the country’s livestock industry.
Such potential disruptions create a great deal of uncertainty, since they’re politically motivated, said Boote. “That’s a tenuous position to be in from a marketing angle.”
For biotech critics, the higher price commanded by conventional crops in Europe could inspire more farmers to diversify away from genetically engineered varieties.
“Usually, with the non-GE market, there’s somewhat of a price premium,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, director of sustainable agriculture for the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit critical of biotechnology.
It’s unclear whether these premiums are enough to overcome the labor-saving economic advantages of crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand herbicides and repel insects, he said.
“Is that demand being satisfied, and if not, why?” Gurian-Sherman said.
European consumers appear to draw a distinction between biotech crops used for human food — which must be labeled and are generally resisted by consumers — and livestock feed, which consumers have grudgingly accepted, he said.
Livestock is essentially viewed as a “filter” for biotech crops, so it’s unlikely Europe’s reliance on biotech feed will translate to growing acceptance of genetically engineered food crops, Gurian-Sherman said.
“It’s an interesting conundrum,” he said.