The European Union has some of the strictest regulations in the world for genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, requiring extensive testing, labeling and monitoring of all food products whose DNA has been manipulated in labs. The debate has intensified this year with the EU and United States negotiating a free-trade agreement that, many hope, will eventually allow American GMOs into the European Union.
Frederick Schmidt owns 170 hectares of farmland in Finten, a small agricultural community outside Frankfurt, Germany.
His farm is well known in the area not only for the delicious apples, peaches and pears but also for vegetables like asparagus. Most of Schmidt's customers are locals, people from neighboring villages and supermarkets in the Frankfurt area. He credits the quality of his fruit and vegetables to respecting and working with nature.
“On my farm we pay a lot of attention to sustainability, that means I have to keep this land," he explained, " what’s in it and its biodiversity for the next generations so they can be successful farmers, as well. The quality of the land is most important, what we have here has to be dealt with wisely and preserved for the future.”
Ever since GMO crops started expanding in the 1980s and 90s, German farmers remained opposed to genetically engineered fruit and vegetables for fear of health risks and environmental contamination.
Despite repeated efforts by the U.S. and Canada to export GMO crops to the EU, they have been met with strong opposition. And, the issue resurfaced this summer as the United States and the European Union started negotiations in Washington on a free trade agreement and possible GMO food imports like corn, soy and sugar beets from the United States.
“For the Europe side, this is a pretty sensitive issue because there are so many people in our countries who have an adverse opinion about genetically engineered crops and that of course is a political factor in this debate, no doubt about it,” explained Thomas Schmidt, a food and agriculture expert at the German Embassy in Washington, DC.
According to a European Union study, 75 percent of Germans are opposed to consuming or expanding genetically modified crops.
A type of maize engineered by chemical giant Monsanto was banned in 2009 and Amflora, a GMO potato developed by the company BASF was grown by one German farmer in 2010 and 2011 then abandoned. Opposition has been so strong that last year chemical giant BASF moved its bio tech division from Germany to the United States.
For German resident Kristine Koster, 28, not eating genetically modified foods is a matter of principle.
“I would gladly pay a few more euros for food that is as natural as possible, organic, without pesticides, without GMOs," she admitted. "This is very important to me. I don’t want to eat any genetically modified anything.”
Critics inside the European Union, including Spain where GMO crops are currently grown, say that Europe has to embrace genetically engineering or lag behind economically. They also point out that while banning GMO crops in Europe, the EU depends on imports of genetically engineered corn from the US, soybean from South America and animal feed from Argentina.
When asked if he expects a breakthrough in the ongoing EU-U.S. free trade negotiations, Thomas Schmidt said a compromise will be difficult.
“I am cautiously optimistic. We should always keep in mind that trade and agriculture is only 4 percent of the overall trade of the United States with the European Union," he noted. "We should not let 4 bpercent of trade take over 96 percent of trade. We should be aware that we have differences and we should find ways to live with these differences by harming trade as little as possible.”
The European Union is currently the largest importer of goods from the United States and a possible deal between the two on GMO food imports from the U.S. would have a significant economic impact on both sides of the Atlantic. The free trade agreement negotiations are expected to be finalized by the end of 2014.