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IFB's Hill: Europe remains emotionally, politically opposed to GMOs

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Earlier this month, Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill joined the American Farm Bureau Federation Trade Advisory Committee in visiting World Trade Organization offices in Geneva, Switzerland and Brussels, Belgium. The committee traveled to Europe to offer the farmers’ perspective on what Hill says is a state-level interest.

“Trade is incredibly important to Iowans,” he explains, “and to the U.S.; our balance of trade is actually positive with ag commodities, here in the U.S.”

However Hill argues trade barriers like tariffs and export subsidies remain an impediment to the free flow of goods. When it comes to Europe specifically, he says “one of the greatest concerns is the acceptance of GMOs, or genetic engineering. Of course the EU, 28 member states of the European Economic Union, have an emotional concern; a political concern about GMOs. It’s not science-based, and so we would ask for sanitary and phytosanitary barriers to be based on science, and not decisions based on political basis or emotional basis.”

Asking for a scientific approach might not sound like a difficult request, but Hill says after traveling to Europe, it’s clear progress will be slow in changing minds on the safety and utility of GMO crops.

“It’s such an emotionally charged issue; the public is very much against GMOs,” says Hill. “But when you start to speak to the farmers, they’re very acceptive of [GMOs], and they would rather prefer to have genetic engineered crops growing in Europe. But it is such a stigma, and it’s so difficult to overcome. Politicians aren’t willing to take the risk and step forward and advance a rational conversation.”

This year, American farmers will produce more corn and soybeans than they ever have before; about 14 billion bushels of corn, and roughly four billion bushels of soybeans. Growing all of that is one thing, but Hill says working on making sure markets are open to U.S. crops is a completely different challenge. Much like progress on GMO acceptance, market access also is slow-going.

“Patience is the most important thing,” says Hill. “These negotiations are difficult, and they take lots of time. Breakthroughs and progress is slow in coming. We need market access. We can do that here at home; the president needs trade promotion authority, so we can ask our congress to approve trade promotion authority for the president of the United States to negotiate deals, and then of course they would be approved by congress eventually. All these trade negotiations and trade exercises take a lot of time and effort.

According to the American Farm Bureau, T-TIP represents $1 trillion of trade in goods and services annually and just over $3.5 trillion in two-way direct investment. In 2013, the U.S. exported $12 billion in agricultural products to the EU, while just under $17.5 billion headed in the opposite direction.

To hear more about Europe’s attitude toward GMOs in the context of current international trade events, click the audio player above.