U.S. President Donald Trump | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Such a move could shift focus to the approvals process at food safety watchdog EFSA.

Brussels is ready to offer to speed up the approval process for genetically modified organisms imported into the EU, as part of a mini trade agreement with Washington.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants to strike such a deal with U.S. President Donald Trump by March 18. POLITICO spoke with four diplomats and three EU officials who said that as part of the deal, the EU could commit to accelerating its system of checks and approvals for GMOs — a system Washington alleges was designed to arbitrarily slow down the approval of crops that compete with EU products.

Many EU countries have banned their farmers from growing genetically modified plants, but the EU does allow imports of GMOs grown abroad, such as soy, maize and sugar beet, which can be sold in Europe as food, animal feed, or both. However, each new variant must go through a lengthy approval process. Spanish farmers are the EU’s main growers of GM crops.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative stated in a report on EU trade barriers last year that “the lengthy EU approval process” for GMO crops of “on average 7.5 years” has caused U.S. farmers “an annual loss of approximately $2 billion per year.”

“We won’t change our regulations” — EU official

Two officials said the U.S. wanted Europe to change the system so that approvals for new GMOs would be granted within two years. That would be in line with a commitment from China in its recent “Phase 1” trade agreement with Trump.

EU officials and diplomats reckoned the bloc could do that without changing its laws. “We won’t change our regulations,” one official said.

Another official said that the key to fast-tracking American GMOs lies with the EU’s food safety watchdog, the European Food Safety Authority. “The key issue there is EFSA, frankly,” the official said.

Whenever a company wants to sell a new GMO into the EU market, it needs to apply for an authorization, which starts with a lengthy safety assessment by EFSA. Once EFSA has ruled the crop to be safe — which can take more than four years — the application is then forwarded to EU countries, which can take another three years or more to give their opinion on whether the GMO crop should be sold in the EU.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is keen to finalize a trade deal with the U.S. | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

The Commission admits that this process can be accelerated.

According to one official who identified themselves as “a very interested bystander,” EU countries could give EFSA more money to hire more GMO experts.

“There might be a question of giving [EFSA] more resources or ensuring that they give [GMO approvals] more priority, even if that’s at the cost of priorities elsewhere,” the official said. “Perhaps they need more people in their gene assessment unit?”

Noting that the authority’s budget for risk assessments was due to be increased in the EU’s next long-term budget plan, the official added, “How much of that could — or can — be diverted to speeding up the paths of GMO assessments?”

Such talk was welcomed among trade diplomats. One said that the EU had, for a long time, been “holding back” GMO authorizations, “until they can strategically put [them] forward as a concession, when really they’re not.”

The diplomat said there was “nothing controversial” about GMO strains currently awaiting authorization in Europe, “except they may be herbicide-tolerant, but that’s another story.”

“Of course, they’re ready to give the U.S. what they want, despite a clear decades-long rejection by EU citizens” — Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU’s agriculture policy director

Crops still backed up for regulatory approval in the EU include several Bayer-Monsanto soybean and maize varieties, and one Corteva soybean, with case histories dating as far back as 2013.

A person working at EFSA privately conceded that “there is probably scope [for] faster authorizations at risk management level,” as it can take months for EU country experts in the Commission’s standing committee on plants, animals, food and feed to deal with product applications.

But “scientifically ‘shortening’ the time of the risk assessment is not an option under the current legislation because it would imply, for instance, asking for less data,” the person added.

Moving in that direction could also have the unlikely consequence of uniting EFSA with environmental groups that have campaigned against its assessments on substances such as glyphosate.

Marco Contiero, Greenpeace EU’s agriculture policy director, said that if turbo-charged GMO approvals were what the Commission meant by a Green Deal, “it boils down to business-as-usual greenwashing for the sake of defending the German car industry.”

“Of course, they’re ready to give the U.S. what they want, despite a clear decades-long rejection by EU citizens,” he continued. “This Commission seems to be acting just like the past one. It’s scary news.”

Doug Palmer contributed reporting.

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