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EU sowings of GM crops tumble - but imports large

European Union cultivation of genetically modified corn has fallen to a three-year low, undermined by lower grain prices and red tape, even as the bloc's reliance on imports of biotech soybeans are growing.

Of the 180m hectares sown worldwide with genetically modified seed, only 128,103 hectares have been planted in the EU – all of a Monsanto corn variety, MON 810, which represents the only biotech crop approved by Brussels for cultivation.

Sowings at that level would represent a four-year low, and a decline of 10% year on year, attributed to factors including weaker corn prices, new European Commission rules encouraging diversification of crops and, in Romania, a near wipe-out of GM crops fuelled by bureaucracy.

In Romania, the area of corn planted with the lone approved biotech corn seed is likely to have fallen "drastically" to 2.5 hectares, from 771 hectares last year, according to a report from US Department of Agriculture officials.

"This is mainly due to the fact that feed manufacturers and livestock farmers prefer to avoid segregation in the warehouses and to reduce the paperwork associated with the use of genetically engineered corn," the report said.

Romanian plantings of the genetically engineered corn variety peaked in 2008 at 7,146 hectares in 2008.

'Strong regulatory constraints'

In the Czech Republic, "area has gradually decreased due to difficulties in marketing the corn commercially", the USDA staff said.

Indeed, Spanish farmers remain the only sizeable growers of MON 810, and even here sowings are well down, by some 8-9% to about 120,000 hectares, in line with a drop in plantings of corn overall.

"Low prices, high irrigation costs and, to a lesser extent, crop diversification established by greening," the EU rules promoting crop diversity, "are forcing total corn area down", the report said.

Overall, "commercial cultivation of genetically engineered crops is minimal in the EU, as a result of strong regulatory constraints," which are being encouraged by a strong anti-GM lobby.

'Increasingly difficult'

However, the EU's consumption of imported genetically modified crops remains undiminished, thanks to the difficulty in sourcing conventional alternatives.

"As the global cultivation of genetically engineered crops expands, it is increasingly difficult for European importers to source non-biotech products," the USDA briefing said.

"Their availability is declining and prices are on the rise."

Of the roughly 30m tonnes in soybeans and soymeal that the EU imports every year, "the share of genetically engineered products… is estimated at around 90%", despite efforts to source non-GM imports from the likes of India and Russia.

Ukraine corn claims

For corn, the proportion of imports of genetically modified is significantly less, likely below 25%, although the 200,000-800,000 tonnes of distillers' dried grains (DDGs) the EU buys in mainly from the US comes some 80% from GM sources.

However, suspicions surround the non-biotech corn imported from Ukraine, the primary origin for EU imports.

"No production of genetically engineered crops has been officially allowed in Ukraine, but there have been reports that around one-third of the corn grown in the country is genetically engineered," the report said.

'Negative reaction'

European Union officials have attempted to get around the logjams and contradictions in its GM policy by proposing to defer to individual member states powers over regulating biotech crops.

However, the USDA report cast doubt on these measures being enacted, after they were opposed by anti-GM and pro-GM groups alike, largely over the potential for disruptions in trade in crops and food within the EU.

"Initial reaction from almost all stakeholders was negative," the report said.

"The political will to reject the proposal is apparent and many insiders at the [European] Commission, the Council [of Ministers] and [European] Parliament are of the view that it will be withdrawn in the fall of this year."

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