Too chicken to talk GM?

RISING PRICES could soon force the poultry industry to reverse its ban on genetically modified feed – but that means a difficult conversation with consumers.


In 2012 the area of land used to grow genetically modified (GM) crops increased by 6% to 170, hectares worldwide.


It is the 17th year in a row that there’s been a rise. Of all the arable land in the world, 12% now has GM crops grown on it. With this kind of expansion, and
with food security set to become a major political theme in the next five to 10 years, some are suggesting that it’s “inevitable” Europe will open its doors to the technology and supermarkets will begin to stock GM products. However, in some cases a tipping point has already been reached. Most imminent – and most concerning – for those in the food industry is that involving soy used for animal feed.


The story begins about 12 years ago when an agreement was struck between the poultry industry and food companies that it would make sense to market UK poultry as GM-free. A unilateral ban on giving GM feed to broilers and layers was put in place. The decision, according to one poultry sector representative, made sense at the time but “it’s come back to haunt us”.


In 2001, it was fairly easy to find GM-free soy for poultry feed, which also meant it was reasonably priced. Today, there’s a £100 per tonne premium given that Brazil, where most of the UK’s soy comes from, is now 89% GM. That the pot of GM-free soy is shrinking should concern retailers and caterers alike: importers are saying they can’t promise supply after May this year. More worrying still is that contamination of feed labelled GM- free is rising beyond legal limits. The NFU’s chief poultry adviser, Kelly Watson, says soya protein contaminated with GM beyond the 0.9% limit is being found “more regularly” and that means the poultry industry is paying a premium for non-GM soya “even though the integrity of the product is deteriorating”. Some have suggested that 40% of GM-free soy is contaminated beyond the 0.9% limit.


Morrisons and Asda have already made moves to relax their policy on GM-free feed for poultry. At February’s Footprint Forum (see page 12), some argued that retailers, and perhaps caterers, which continue with their GM-free feed policies are simply “lying” to consumers, making claims that they cannot uphold. “It’s a matter of honesty,” explained Charles Bourns, a farmer and president of the EU Commission’s egg and poultry advisory group. “If I’m going to find it impossible to buy genuinely GM-free soy, the last thing I want is for a newspaper to find out that [my animals] are fed on GM.” Bourns said it was time to “bite the bullet” and tell consumers that farmers can’t supply poultry fed on GM-free soy “because it’s not being grown.” Watson agrees, adding that a change in policies is “urgently needed” so the switch to GM feed “can be managed proactively and transparently”.


Before Christmas the NFU, British Poultry Council and British Egg Industry wrote to the British Retail Consortium to highlight the difficulty of sourcing non-GM feed and the decreasing integrity. Neither Asda nor Morrisons has apparently suffered any sales setbacks from the change in their policies, but is this because not many consumers knew about it? Retailers are notoriously vocal when it comes to GM-free policies, but equally cagey when it comes to pushing GM. Their anti-GM policies have also made consumers wary of the foods. A recent survey by the Food Standards Agency found that 67% of 1,467 consumers think it is “very or quite important” to state on a label if the product is from animals fed on GM plants. The Soil Association said the findings were a “major blow” to the government’s GM labelling policy and called for more British supermarkets to follow the lead of Carrefour, which labels all produce from animals not fed on GM. “Currently in the UK, the only way to be completely sure you avoid eating GM is to eat organic,” says the association’s policy director, Peter Melchett.


The NFU, meanwhile, argues that the UK’s non-GM requirement is “a niche” and points out that there are no known safety concerns; the independent European Food Safety Authority established in 2007 that recombinant DNA from GM plants used in feed does not end up in the final meat, milk or eggs.


Consumer trust in the food sector has already been battered by the horse meat controversy, so to raise the issue of GM now is either a huge risk or a perfect opportunity. Price could be the overriding factor, with the premium for GM-free soy only set to rise as more and more Brazilian farmers opt for GM. Can retailers or caterers subsidise the premium? And, if not, will a consumer pay £12 for a chicken rather than £6 (as one farmer suggested)?


What consumers say and what they do are often very different. One research project assessed consumer reaction to different strawberries. Offered a choice between organic, conventional and GM fruits, 50% said organic when asked. However, when the fruits were put in store and priced accordingly, with GM the cheapest and organic the priciest, 50% chose GM. The retailers have mastered the art of marketing by price, and they will need all that experience to convince UK consumers about why they need to change their policies. Failure to do so could result in some pricey poultry, or  some very peeved consumers.