A recently completed goodwill tour of the European Union by U.S. corn growers came at a good time. But it's hard to say whether or not the trip will significantly affect the European Commission's new biotech policy proposal.
The current draft of the policy contains threshold levels for the presence of genetically enhanced grains “that are unreasonable and unworkable.” said Fred Yoder, Plain City, Ohio, farmer and chairman of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) Biotechnology Action Team.
“We wanted to meet with them to voice our concerns and our willingness to work with them if it's a reasonable and consistent policy. I don't know what they're going to end up passing, but they've now had a chance to hear from a grower's perspective.”
Yoder stressed that the group wasn't there to negotiate or “force biotechnology down anyone's throat.” In fact, it met not only with policymakers, but also consumer groups, importers, farmers and the news media to discuss biotechnology issues.
Members of the six-person group, which included grower/officials of the NCGA and representatives of the U.S. Grains Council, were surprised by some of the myths and misconceptions they encountered on the trip.
For example, while EU members Portugal and Spain are no longer importing U.S. corn because of fear that it may contain certain biotech products, both countries are importing corn from Argentina, which they have been led to believe is a biotech-free source of grain. Like the United States, Argentina is a large producer of biotech grain.
Adding to the irrationality, Sri Lanka “thinks we're using food aid programs to dump biotech grain on developing nations,” Yoder said. “But they don't understand that all this grain has been tested and approved by government agencies and it's used here in the United States.
“We also told them that 80 percent of our domestically-raised corn is used in the United States. There's very little biotech corn being exported anyway. We have to reach out to these countries and clear up these misconceptions.”
Like U.S. consumers, Europeans apparently have little understanding of the environmental benefits of using biotechnology, according to Yoder.
“At this point in time, their consumers feel there are no consumer benefits,” Yoder said. “We talked about using less pesticides when you used Bt corn and changing the type of herbicide you have to use with Roundup Ready corn to enhance the water quality in runoff. You also have fewer trips over the field, fewer fossil fuels being used, and the lack of mycotoxins in Bt corn, which makes for a much longer shelf life.
“These are some ideas they never thought about. But it's clear, until they see a consumer benefit, they aren't going to look hard on it.”
Leon Corzine, Assumption, Ill., corn farmer, and NCGA Biotechnology Working Group member, said the Europeans “were glad to hear that the NCGA was working on a producer certification system for identity preservation of not only biotech, but non-biotech, value-added products starting on the farm and moving on through the system.”
Corzine added, “What we heard was that the EU has no problem accepting the sound science of biotechnology. They can have the greatest degree of confidence in what the science says, but consumers are king in the EU and as of this time, they have not warmed up to the idea of biotechnology.”
U.S. Grains Council is the export promotions organization for the corn, sorghum and barley industries which operates offices in 11 countries and has active programs in about 50.
Goals of the trip were to assess the current status of biotechnology, the debate going on and the prospects for resumption of the biotech approval process in Europe and ultimately get trade moving again.
Another objective was to learn more about how biotechnology is viewed by consumers in Europe and the agricultural groups there. A third objective was to convey the positive attitude among U.S. corn producers toward biotechnology and more importantly toward the environment.
“We wanted to let them know that only 24 percent of our corn crop will be biotech and 76 percent will not,” said David McGuire, USCG director of trade relations and global strategies. “Those decisions are based on economics, the environment. We spent a lot of time explaining how farmers made those decisions.
“Our fourth objective was to build relationships between the U.S. grain industry and interested groups in Europe. We went to great lengths to point out that we're there to listen and to learn, hear their concerns and not to push biotechnology.
“It's a daunting task,” he said. “It's much easier for activist groups to raise doubts in people's minds than it is to get them to look at the Page 3 story about good science on the issues. But that's one of the primary reasons the council exists, to educate our customers overseas.”
And of course, part of group's role was to defend the image and integrity of U.S. corn. Lee Klein, president of the NCGA and farmer from Battle Creek, Neb., found some hypocrisy.
“I found it ironic that if somebody comes up with a product that shows drought resistance where third world countries could raise a crop, that would be acceptable. I find it discouraging that it's proper to use biotechnology to make wine and cheese and beer. But if comes to the United States biotechnology, then there's a problem.”
All the group agreed the key to European acceptance is through the European consumer.
“The regulatory people we talked to were very much aware of the scientific benefits and provability,” Yoder said. “But that does not transfer to the consumers because they have no access to the information.
“That's the one area that seems to be lacking. They're not aware of the data that exists which shows biotechnology is safe. That's one of the conclusions we came up with, that we need to package our scientific data better and offer it to these organization so they can get that information out to their consumers.”