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European discomfort with U.S. farming could derail trade talks

Many Europeans see American farming and its reliance on genetically modified crops as more Frankenstein than Farmer in the Dell.

Now, the opposition to U.S. agricultural practices is threatening to become a major battle in discussions starting next month that could sweep away trade barriers between the United States and Europe.

Many in Europe worry that a trade pact would ease regulations that have made it difficult for genetically modified crops and products to reach European shores. Genetically modified crops are broadly unpopular in Europe, and farmers and environmentalists fear that if trade restrictions are lowered, both genetically modified seeds and U.S.-grown genetically modified products would quickly take over European farmland and grocery stores.

Some farmers are hoping to stop the talks if rules that govern their work are thrown into the mix, and they are determined to keep U.S. industrial farming an ocean’s-length away.

U.S. crops inspire fear among everyone from French wine producers to German corn growers. Many European farmers say that plants that are carefully engineered to do everything from boosting production to repelling pests have uncertain environmental consequences and, once growing, spread uncontrollably via pollen that can float for miles on the wind.

But in the United States, many farmers wring extra profit out of each acre they plant with the new seeds, and the technology has quickly cornered the U.S. market despite lingering concerns from environmentalists and consumers. In the United States last year, genetically modified crops comprised 88 percent of all corn, 94 percent of cotton and 93 percent of soybeans, according to Agriculture Department figures. In the European Union, they covered less than 1 percent of farmland, mostly in Spain, according to the European Commission.

With talks expected to begin within weeks, Europeans and Americans are still finalizing the topics where they will try to find an agreement, but officials on both sides say that genetically modified crops are almost certain to be part of a broader discussion about easing restrictions.

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