GM Feed in the EU: Policies and Principles

As the price of non-genentically modified (non-GM) feed soars, the European meat industry - bound by strict regulations - struggles to compete both in global and domestic markets, writes Adam Anson for ThePoultrySite.
calendar icon 26 August 2009
clock icon 6 minute read

The Evolving Situation of Global GM Markets

Fuelled by high demand and cheap production costs, demand for many varieties of genetically modified (GM) crops is thriving. Engineered to be hardier in the presence of poor conditions, stronger in the fight against disease and more resilient against the threat of insects, for many, GM crop varieties are an obvious choice.

Many critics have objected to GM food on several grounds, including perceived safety issues, ecological concerns and economic concerns, yet the growth of this new market has expanded exponentially since it was first conceived in 1994. GM feeds were developed soon thereafter and for many countries became an economical replacement for non-GM feed.

However, the EU has applied stringent regulations on GM feed, forcing EU livestock producers to continue buying ever more expensive non-GM feed ingredients. Passing the buck from farmer to consumer is not always possible as domestic meat products already face stiff competition from foreign countries, which do accept the use of GM feed.

Many farmers argue that by the time their products reach the supermarket shelves, they are already too expensive. In the money-conscious aftermath of the current recession, demand for the higher-priced European product is further weakened.

Trends and Scenarios

In response to further concerns raised in the UK government's Food Matters report, published in July 2008, the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), in conjunction with the country's Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently produced a follow-up report examining the potential scenarios and impacts of European GM policies.

The report reflects concerns that the rate of EU approvals for GM products, coupled with the absence of any tolerance for low levels of unauthorised GM material, could prejudice UK food and feed imports. Also, the report produced an analysis of the extent to which changes in the market are putting a strain on the regulatory system for GM products (including animal feed) and the implications for UK consumers.

Of particular concern, the report identified the threat of a situation known as 'asynchronous approval'. This occurs when significant GM producers (USA, Brazil, Argentina) authorise and cultivate new types of GM crop before they are cleared for EU import.

"Where a non-EU authorised GM crop is grown, there is potential for an adventitious presence of this crop to arise which may disrupt imports of that commodity from the country concerned, both non-GM (conventional) and EU-approved GM varieties," says the report. But, counter to the threat of asynchronous approval runs the belief that Brazil and Argentina will not adopt new strains before they are approved by the EU.

However, the report also notes China's rapidly growing demand for GM feed. With an established Chinese market, EU demand will no longer dictate what type of feed these countries produce. Concerns arise because the UK is currently dependent on soy from Brazil and Argentina. Ninety per cent of UK feed comes from companies in these regions, totalling three million tonnes over 2007/2008. However, the current trend of these feed producers is towards the GM market. Already, 94 per cent of Argentinean soya is GM and in Brazil that figure is 65 per cent and quickly rising. There is also a risk that as a new GM soya variety is used in the US, it might lead to trace levels being detected in supplies from other countries.

The premium for non-GM feed can vary greatly between US$5 and $80 a tonne. Currently, the cost of maintaining these non-GM feed supplies is absorbed by the meat industry but back in November 2008, it was considered that the premium for non-GM feed for UK agriculture could rise from £24 million to £45 million per year.

Such a rise may have a disastrous impact on UK livestock farmers. As there is no legal requirement for labelling meat produced with GM feed accordingly, consumers cannot differentiate between GM and non-GM products. The possible economical benefits of non-GM production is thereby often lost.

The Next Step

The Defra/FSA report makes it clear that that despite of the current problems, they remain in favour of a strict and robust set of EU regulations. However, the pace at which GM feeds are evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – which has a leading role in the final say in what can and cannot be imported into the EU – could be hampered by unsatisfactory and over-stretched resources, suggests the report. A greater investment in this area would quicken inspections of new GM products and eliminate the threat of asynchronous approval.

The report also questions the idea of a 'technical solution', which would allow a low presence of unauthorised GM feeds to pass through regulation in the event of contamination. This suggestion flies in the face of EU's current zero tolerance approach to GM food. The report argues that it would fail to protect the consumer from non-GM food and may lead to a consumer backlash. Such a scenario would raise media attention and public awareness of other GM products currently available in the EU.

European citizens are highly sensitive to GM development in all sectors. Environmental claims lie on either side of the argument, as do ethical ones. Many are concerned that by accepting GM feed in EU markets they are effectively kowtowing to the demands of biotechnology companies, which dominate the GM market with limited competition. Such sectors lead to monopolisation - as the saying goes: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Critics fear that any gifts that farmers may garner from GM feed may be taken back once the market is established globally.

The EU Commission was recently assigned EFSA to look into the matter of GM feed in Europe in further detail. Evaluation began in April 2009 and will be finished 12 months later.

August 2009

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