Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Memorandum by the American Soybean Association


  1. The United States is the world's major producer and exporter of soybeans, the principal world source of vegetable protein, and a major source of vegetable oils and other food products. At present, US area under soybeans lies at around 72 million acres, a figure which approximates to the combined land area of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

  2. In 1997, US production of soybeans reached a figure of some 75 million tonnes, mainly from states in the Mississippi basin, of which about 50 per cent will prove to have been exported, 15 per cent to Europe in the form either of whole beans or of soy meals produced after oil extraction.

  3. The American Soybean Association (hereinafter "the ASA") headquartered in St Louis, Missouri, represents 32,000 producer members on national and international policy and issues important to all US growers of soy. Its commitment to international markets is attested by its thirteen international offices spread throughout the world, and by its ongoing promotion program for US soy products to a wide range of customers.

  4. The ASA welcomes and appreciates the opportunity to contribute to the Sub-Committee's enquiry. The Sub-Committee will be aware that the US soybean sector in particular has been the focus of much attention in the European debate on the uses of biotechnology in agriculture. Criticism has been directed at it by European opponents of biotechnology, frequently founded on misinformation, and considerable confusion in Europe has resulted.

  5. It is hoped that the present observations will open the way to a better understanding of what the US soybean farmer can do to meet the needs of his European customers in terms of securing product with the characteristics they require and are prepared to pay for.


  6. Soybean production in the US has grown from a near-zero base in the 1920s to current levels on foot of growing demand from the world food and feed industries. The climatic conditions in which it is carried on vary widely across the US, with 11 different identified climate patterns requiring different approaches to variety choice and to agronomic management.

  7. The number of varieties cultivated runs into thousands, with seed provided by a range of large- and small-scale multipliers to suit local conditions. As with agricultural crops in general, there is an observable tendency in most cases for a soybean variety to peak in use and to decline over about a 25 year commercial life-cycle.

  8. The genetic resource base is therefore in a constant state of development and renewal, and about a hundred new varieties obtained through classical selection procedures, enter commercial production each year.

  9. With the development over the past 25 years of modern biotechnology, additional genetic options have become available to soybean producers. The advent of recombinant DNA technology has enabled improvements which have a favourable impact on agronomic practice, in terms of production costs, both of inputs and labour, in terms of farm health and safety, and in terms of good environmental practice.

  10. The 1996 US planting season saw the first use of seed in the production of which recombinant DNA techniques were used to insert a specific agronomic trait into the genetic material of soybean seed of a number of varieties. The Monsanto Company had made available to seed multipliers the technology to incorporate into the genomes of soybean varieties an event which gives the soybean plant enhanced tolerance of the systemic herbicide glyphosate. It is estimated that the modification event is currently on offer in about two hundred varieties of soybean.

  11. Commercial plantings of these beans, known commercially as "Roundup Ready" beans (or "RR beans"), only began after all existing regulatory requirements had been complied with both in the US and in major export markets for soybeans. To date, RR beans are the only transgenic soybeans in production that are exported from America, although authorization procedures are underway for several other modification events in the soybean.

  12. In the European Union, the principal regulatory requirement was a decision authorising the clearance of such beans for deliberate release into the environment under Council Directive 90/220/EEC.

  13. That decision (96/281/EC) was taken by the European Commission on 3 April 1996, following a favourable recommendation after detailed examination from the United Kingdom's competent authority for release of transgenic organisms into the environment, and a qualified majority in favour of such a decision from the member states of the EU meeting within the relevant committee.

  14. In the first planting season, about 2 per cent of America's soybean acreage was planted to RR beans, with about 15 per cent in 1997, and about 40 per cent in 1998. The limiting factor on RR acreage for 1998 was the availability of seed, provision of which could not keep pace with demand. In future years, and as the RR technology is incorporated in soybean varieties of all maturity groups, it is expected that the technology will become the norm.

  15. As neither the US nor EU regulatory authorities have seen any need to require separation of RR beans from other beans, the harvesting and marketing of all soybeans entering the bulk commodity system does not in general involve such separation.

  16. This does not mean however that it is not possible to ensure that small quantities in container-sized lots can be supplied to order in response to specific customer requirements, but the costs involved would reflect the additional growing, handling and guarantee operations undertaken.

  17. Hitherto, no standard specifications or form contracts to underpin such limited deliveries of non-transgenic beans have been elaborated, and the ASA has not been approached by any customers in Europe with a view to drafting them and recommending them to its membership.


  18. The ASA would like to respond to the sub-committee's invitation specifically under the following heads:

    —  the appropriateness and efficacy of current regulation of novel foods and their labelling at European Union level (point 1(c) in the notice of invitation);

    —  the most appropriate jurisdictions (including international regulation and harmonisation) for decisions on genetically modified organisms (point 3 in the notice of invitation);

  19. The ASA does not feel competent, in the present context, to comment on the UK's national approach to genetic modification in agriculture, and believes that the implications for soy arise essentially at EU level, something that may not be the case for other genetically-modified crops.


  20. In the ASA's view, the EU's provisions on novel food labelling have yet to be effectively applied or observed in operation. Apart from the basic novel foods regulation (258/97), no implementing regulation thereunder has been adopted, whether of a general nature or relating to a specific product. The system has yet to function.

  21. The EU Council's adoption in late May of Regulation 1139/98, under the 1979 food labelling directive (79/112/EEC), on the exhaustion of a complex legislative procedure, merely targets those soybean and maize varieties which incorporate two specific proprietary modification events, and submits them, and products derived from them, to testing and labelling constraints in the name of consumer information.

  22. In so doing, however, the Council has acted on an assumption, embodied in the sixteenth and eighteenth motivating grounds of the regulation, that both modification events render the products covered, and products derived from them, not equivalent to existing counterparts, on the grounds that there may be detectable variations in DNA and protein attributable to the events.

  23. This would seem to do violence to the concept of substantial equivalence of novel foods as developed in the OECD and the WHO, which seeks to evaluate a novel food by comparing it with an established counterpart, and determining whether there are additional safety concerns which need to be taken into account in the authorization of the novel food.

  24. It may well be that the Council considers that the required labelling is unrelated to health and safety, and only addresses a consideration of consumer information. However, the ASA believes that this approach will give rise to conflict when it comes to establishing a sound international system for the control and management of biotechnology in agriculture.


  25. The ASA believes that the broad lines of areas of potential international disagreement on biotechnology in agriculture are already clear. They would seem to be:

    —  differing positions, perhaps of an ethical or social nature, unrelated to food safety and environmental protection, on the use to be made of transgenic plants in agriculture;

    —  the role of law and public authority in favouring or discouraging resort to transgenic plants;

    —  attempts to impede trade in and market access for transgenic plants using new policy considerations to justify new non-tariff barriers of a kind unacceptable within the WTO;

    —  serious divergence in approach to the authorization of individual products, whether founded on general evaluation principles, or on differing durations for completion of procedures.

  26. The ASA believes that the WTO should remain the agency of choice for settling disputes in trade in transgenic products, albeit with the technical support and specialized advice of agencies such as the WHO (in particular through the Codex Alimentarius) and the OECD.

  27. The ASA believes that the principles underlying the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, annexed to the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement establishing the WTO, offer the best existing framework to resolve differences which might arise.

  28. The ASA would view with disquiet any suggestion that the Agreement, or any successor arrangement, should admit any public policy measures which, for reasons other than those based on sound science, would abridge the liberalisation of trade in farm products which has been achieved so far.

  29. The ASA also feels that cooperation between regulatory authorities, founded perhaps on mutual recognition of approvals, would do much to eliminate difficulties in trade, where the pace of approvals differs between jurisdictions.

8 June 1998

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