SUPERMARKET giant Waitrose dealt a blow to GM crops this week by announcing that its meat and dairy products must now come exclusively from livestock fed only on non-GM materials.
While the UK's supermarkets do not sell unlabelled GM produce for human consumption, all of them have continued to sell meat and dairy products from animals fed on imported GM soya and GM maize – which they are not required to label under EU law.
Waitrose is now the only UK retailer voluntarily committing to have only non-GM soya in all its suppliers' animal feed – but anti-GM campaigners, led by Greenpeace and the Soil Association, are expecting other supermarkets to follow suit, particularly if the general public start to perceive a clear distinction between the two possible livestock diets.
Overall, about 80% of the world’s soya is genetically modified, and unmodified soya now attracts a significant price premium when imported into the EU to serve the existing GM-free segments of the livestock feed market.
Responding to the Waitrose announcement, NFU Scotland cited figures suggesting that a move to GM-free rations for pigs would result in a £20 per tonne increase in the cost of feed and mean that each finished pig would cost £7 more to produce.
On poultry, the union calculated that a shift to GM-free diets would increase costs by 2p per kilo on chicken or 4p per dozen for eggs – and without an increase in returns, producers on non-GM rations would quickly become uncompetitive compared to any competitors who might have access to imported GM soya.
NFUS vice president Rob Livesey commented: “The choice of Waitrose to pursue this aspiration reflects where they see themselves within the food retail market. That's at the high value end. It's an admirable place to aspire to be, so long as the primary producers secure a fair share of the end price to reflect the higher production costs this approach will introduce.
“It is also important to remember that the next generation of GM food production methods has the potential to greatly reduce pesticide use, protecting the environment to a far greater degree than many environmental pressure groups would have you believe.
“The consumer should be made more aware of the potential that GM has to offer rather than the hype and hysteria that continues to surround first generation GM crop production systems, regardless of how safe they have proven to be," said Mr Livesey. "We all need to be more open minded and challenge all sides of this debate.”
The union's pigs committee chairman, Kevin Gilbert added: “The decision by Waitrose to require non-GM feed will increase the cost of food on the supermarket shelf. This may not be an issue for some customers but would affect consumers on a more limited budget. It would be great if all livestock could be fed on soya – GM or otherwise – that has been produced in Europe but, unfortunately, there are insufficient supplies for this to happen and that is a change we are unlikely to see in the foreseeable future.”
By contrast, Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett said: "We warmly welcome this very important development. GM soya from Latin America is linked to rainforest destruction, so sourcing non-GM soya from the Danube region, and using more UK-grown protein crops, is good for the climate, good for UK farmers, and good for consumers. We expect other retailers to follow Waitrose’s lead."
Commenting on homegrown protein sources, NFUS policy manager Peter Loggie added: “While one retailer may be able to source enough non-GM vegetable protein from within the EU for its purposes, the reality is that Europe remains highly dependent on imported soya, both GM and non-GM. There is simply is not enough protein grown in Europe to satisfy the requirements for all, especially the pig, poultry and egg sectors.
“In the newest version of the CAP, the European Union tried to encourage production of crops that could help fill the vegetable protein gap. That was very successful in the first year, but in Scotland, gold-plated greening rules from the Scottish Government meant there was less uptake. When the Scottish Government chose to tighten the rules for 2016, most farmers dropped growing commercial crops of peas and beans from their EFA options.
“Similarly, the European Commission is now proposing changes to the rules on use of Plant Protection Products on some of these vegetable protein crops, driven by calls from environmental groups," noted Mr Loggie. "Those changes could have the same effect as the gold-plated rules in Scotland and reduce the availability of protein sources in Europe. Such organisations calling for these changes need to get their act together and look at the wider environmental implications of what they ask for.”