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Seeds of Conflict: Genetically Engineered Crops and Austrian Agricultural Policy

bridges vol. 17, April 2008 / Feature Article

by Hans Kordik

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The United States of America is the biggest producer of crops using genetic engineering (also called genetically modified or “GM” crops), with more than 50 percent of the global GM-production area located in North America. As agricultural trade is of key importance for America’s economy, it’s conceivable that the US also has ambitions to export products derived from genetically modified organisms.


In May 2003, the US, Canada, and Argentina submitted a petition to the World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding the authorization procedure and the import bans on certain genetically modified organisms in the European Union (EU). In September 2006, the court of arbitration ruled in favour of the claimants in this dispute (click here for further information on the WTO Biotech Dispute). Nevertheless, there has been little support for or progress toward placing GM-products in European farmers’ fields or consumers’ shopping carts. This is based on the reaction of European consumers, who are very sceptical about this new technology.

The production of high-quality, healthy food has always been one of the main concerns of Austrian agriculture. Austrian agriculture is known not only for its landscape-related efforts, but also provides crucial ecological services by promoting environmentally sound and sustainable agriculture such as organic farming. Austrian agriculture does not believe that genetic engineering can provide any benefits, and so rejects it. Organic farmers, as well as conventional Austrian farmers, have made use of their freedom of choice by preferring to abstain from genetic engineering. This orientation correlates closely with the demand of consumers, as the majority of Austrian consumers oppose genetically modified food products.


Cows and Tomatoes, (c) Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management
(c) Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management

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Behind the scenes: the EU legal framework and procedure for GMOs

EU Regulation No. 1829/03 of the European Parliament and Council has laid down specific rules for an authorization procedure for food and feed consisting of, containing, or produced from genetically modified organisms (GMO). This authorization procedure for GM-foods is substantially equivalent to the procedure existing for conventional foods. In order to protect human and animal health, GM-foods should undergo a safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European counterpart of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), before being placed on the market within the European Community.


If the assessment of the EFSA for a specific GM variety should turn out positive, the European Commission is obliged to present an application for authorization within three months to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health. If this Committee does not reach a qualified majority of yays or nays (258 of 345 votes;  ~75 percent), the application for authorization, together with the assessment of the EFSA, would be forwarded to the Agriculture and Fisheries Council to determine when a GM variety should be placed on the EU-market, or to the Environment Council to decide when production of a GM variety should be permitted. If those Councils do not reach a qualified majority against the proposal, the European Commission has the power to decide upon the authorization (click here for more information on how the legislation implementation procedure of the European Union, known as Comitology, works in detail.)


Growing scepticism in the European Union

In 2007 the European Commission presented seven applications to the Standing Committee, and none of the seven cases received the necessary qualified majority. The voting in the Agriculture and Fisheries or Environment Councils strengthened the decision made in the Standing Committee. An analysis of the voting shows that, based on the positive assessment of the EFSA, a few Member States cast a positive vote (e.g., the United Kingdom, Sweden). However, most Member States abstained or even voted against the proposal for political reasons. Although there was never a qualified majority against the proposal of the European Commission, there had been cases where 15 of 27 Member States opposed a specific GM-trait. Despite this strong opposition among the EU Member States, the European Commission made use of their power and granted four of the seven applications.


Genetic engineering in medicine is apparently no longer an issue, but the majority of Europe's farmers and especially the consumers of the European Union reject the cultivation of GMO plants and the products derived from them, food in particular. In fact, following a survey by the European Food Safety Authority, 62 percent of European consumers opposed the use of genetic engineering. According to this "Eurobarometer," 69 percent of Austrians were critical of genetically modified food products.


Grapes and Potatoes, (c) Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management
(c) Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management


Agricultural policy in Austria has no place for genetic engineering

Due to Austria's topographic and climatic conditions, chances for diversification are limited. In fact, since two-thirds of the countryside is covered by mountains, Austria has chosen to orient its agriculture toward quality rather than quantity. Many years prior to Austria's accession to the European Union, Josef Riegler, the vice-chancellor and minister of agriculture in the late 80s, initiated the "eco-social market economy," which promoted environmentally friendly practices in agriculture. Austria had been successful defending this agricultural policy orientation throughout the treaty negotiations with the European Union in the early 90s. Some say that Austria has strongly influenced the orientation of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) throughout the last decade.


Not only could Austria maintain its extensive type of agriculture within the EU, but today Austria is considered a front-runner in terms of environmentally friendly agricultural production within the European Union. In fact, Austria is not only considered a pioneer in organic farming (Austria's first organic farming dates back to 1918), but today has the highest proportion of organic farms and areas under organic production of all the EU Member States. With 20,200 organic farms, 14 percent of Austrian farms cultivate 16 percent of Austria's agricultural area in accordance with organic farming criteria. This high percentage correlates with the growing demand in Austria as well as in international markets.


Austria has the highest participation under the "agri-environmental" program according to the rural development regulation of the European Union. Approximately 94 percent of Austrian subsidized farms, managing more than 90 percent of Austria's agricultural area, are affiliated with the Austrian agri-environmental program. Organic farming is just one measure under this environmental program. Farmers can receive subsidies by foregoing yield-intensifying techniques like fertilizers, chemical-synthetic plant protection products like fungicides, pesticides, and insecticides, or growth-promoting substances.


Sustainable produced, high quality food is an indispensable prerequisite for strengthening and safeguarding the market position of Austrian agriculture and is treasured by the Austrian consumers. It would be a contradiction to introduce genetic engineering in Austrian agriculture, when the agricultural policy has done everything to preserve nature and produce food without the use of non-organic chemicals in fertilizers or plant protection products.


This orientation toward environmentally friendly agricultural production has not only safeguarded the Austrian market position but has increasingly helped to position Austrian food in international markets. Since the beginning of this century Austrian agricultural exports have increased by an average of 10 percent per year. Austria might also benefit from the growing demand for organic food in the US.


Spikes and Chickens (c) Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management
(c) Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management


For further information on this topic, please visit the Web Site of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management



Hans Kordik is the Austrian counselor for Agriculture and Environment at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC.


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