Future for GM Feed in Free-Range Egg Production?

UK retailers' policies are no longer sustainable, asserts this article published by www.farminguk.com.
calendar icon 12 September 2008
clock icon 8 minute read

For the last few years, Britain has observed an uneasy truce between those who refuse to accept that there is any place for genetically modified (GM) crops, and those who would like to see greater use made of advancing biotechnical knowledge. However, the current situation of escalating feed costs and talk of world food shortages has finally driven UK politicians to acknowledge that the debate should now be re-opened.

It is an emotive issue. A significant number of consumers are highly suspicious of GM foods in all their forms, and it is likely to take a lot of time, and scientific evidence, to set their fears at rest. However, whilst general acceptance of GM may be a very long way off, there are signs that the UK government may be withdrawing its opposition to GM crops in animal feed. At the time of the international food summit in June, Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested that the EU should consider importing more GM animal feed ingredients, and the Environment Minister has also indicated a willingness to explore a biotechnical approach to alleviating the food shortage.

Non-GM Ingredients Becoming Scarce

In all of this, there is one particular issue that affects free-range egg producers: will retailers change their policy and permit the use of GM ingredients in poultry feed? Easing or lifting restrictions would benefit producers as it would reduce feed costs, and a softening of consumer opposition to GM would smooth the way towards this.

"We will run out of non-GM soya either April 2009 or April 2010"
Spokeperson for Humphrey Feeds

The poultry sector faces much greater restrictions than other livestock sectors since for the most part, supermarkets continue to insist on free-range poultry being fed a non-GM diet. This remains unchanged despite the fact that non-GM soya is becoming scarcer and more expensive as the price differential between GM and non-GM widens. For some years Brazil has been the only commercial soya exporter that has not moved entirely to GM production, and now Brazil is increasing the proportion of GM soya it grows (at the expense of non-GM).

This year, for the first time, the proportion of non-GM soya grown has been less than 50 per cent; projections indicate that this will fall further next year, to around 20 per cent over the rest of the decade. A spokeperson for Humphrey Feeds predicts, "We will run out of non-GM soya either April 2009 or April 2010. Increasingly more GM soya is being grown in Brazil, because the price demand from consumers has been insufficient. Therefore, we WILL run out. One way or another, the GM issue cannot be ducked for much longer."

Policies Mired in Inconsistencies

It has become difficult to eliminate all non-GM traces without going to considerable lengths to do so, and consumers can no longer safely make any assumptions about items on the retailers' shelves.

Andrew Joret (Director of Noble Foods) points out that when you look across the whole of the animal protein sector, the retailer's policies on non-GM are mired in inconsistency. "For eggs the feed ingredient currently of issue is soya, but for other animal proteins it can also be maize and rapeseed. Pork and milk in the UK are mainly produced on diets containing GM soya and GM maize by-products, respectively. Milk and pork produced with GM ingredients are happily being sold alongside free-range eggs on non-GM diets. And what policy do the supermarkets have on imported products such as cheese or poultry meat used in ready meals?"

Current Feeds to the Free-Range Sector Not GM-Free

In fact, current feeds to the free-range sector are not 'entirely non-GM'. This may appear shocking but the oils are frequently from vegetable oils including soya which rarely segregate GM and non-GM sources. Oils used are invariably from GM origins, and this is reflected on declaration labels.

Also some vitamins, amino acids and enzymes have 'GM steps' in their production. So whilst supermarkets have correctly removed the main sources of GM from the diets, really it cannot be said that the diets are genuinely free from GM contamination. If consumers want non-GM, soon the only option really will be organic feed/livestock/livestock products.

Times Have Changed, Supermarket Policies Have Not

When the supermarkets brought in their restrictions on GM-fed poultry and poultry products around 1999/2000, it was not an unreasonable move as non-GM soya was in plentiful supply. Modified soya was still in its infancy, and the price difference was not significant.

"At a certain level, the whole IP system will get overwhelmed and we are rapidly approaching that point"
Andrew Joret, Director of Noble Foods

The situation is now very different. GM soya has become widely accepted as the norm; and in the US, it has total support as it is less expensive to grow and arguably produces a better yield. Insistence on non-GM animal feed is becoming harder to justify.

Andrew Joret says, "The non-GM policy is non-sustainable and it is only a matter of time before it all falls over. The question is, when will that be? As the percentage of GM soya grown in Brazil has increased, the animal feed industry is seeing more and more positives for GM in its non-GM quality assuarance [QA] samples. So we, and the consumer, are not getting what we think we are paying for right now. At a certain level, the whole IP [Identity Preserved] system will get overwhelmed and we are rapidly approaching that point. The sooner therefore that this is recognised and changed, the better."

The National Farmers Union reports that it has recently put the case to major retailers, asking them to relax their restrictions. However, none has so far changed their position. On 3 July, a spokesperson from the Sainsbury's supermarket chain confirmed, "We recognise that our insistence on non-GM feed has an impact on the poultry industry. However, we have to consider our customers and provide them with the products they want and trust. At the moment, Sainsbury's is not planning any change in policy, however there is a review process for all policies to ensure that they are the right fit for our customers and other stakeholders."

Let Consumers Make Informed Choices

Outside intervention may be needed to expedite a change in retailers' policy, and this intervention may be on the way. On 7 July, the government published the findings of a 10-month study by the Cabinet Strategy Unit. Entitled Food Matters – Towards a Strategy for the 21st Century, this report looks at how different elements of the food system can be better integrated and its impact economically, socially and environmentally, and recognises the need for central government to work with the public, businesses from all parts of the food chain, other stakeholders, and other tiers of government, to put a new food policy framework in place.

A Food Strategy Task Force has been set up, and issues including the labeling of GM produce and the difficulties currently being faced by farmers are among the many topics to be addressed.

As part of the same initiative, Defra will shortly be publishing a paper entitled Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Globalised World, which will set out the key factors that affect food supply and pricing, and encourage discussion with stakeholders including producers and retailers about ensuring long-term food security.

The free-range industry will welcome these promises of consultation and changes in policy; though it remains to be seen how quickly revised policies can be agreed on by all sides and brought into effect.

Of course retailers must continue to respect their customers' choices; but some would argue that they have now gone a stage beyond this and are trying to artificially screen their consumers from normal market forces and evolution. In the long term, this is in nobody's best interests as it is simply not sustainable.

At the end of 2007 when supermarkets were showing reluctance to pass on the increased costs of egg production – until the consumers themselves, having learned through other channels of the predicament that the industry was in, began to join the debate in support of the producer.

Consumers are not stupid; they are perfectly capable of modifying their expectations and demands to suit the current marketplace but how can they make truly 'informed' choices as long as the retailers keep them in ignorance of changes in market conditions? It may well be that once consumers become aware of the scarcity of non-GM feed – as sooner or later they must – they will reassess their willingness to accept free-range eggs from poultry whose feed has included GM ingredients.

By persisting in 'ducking the issue', retailers are simply delaying the inevitable; and in the meanwhile, the free-range industry will struggle to source – and fund – ingredients that will one day simply not be there.

This article was first published on www.farminguk.com in July 2008.

August 2008
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