IT'S BEEN almost 10 years since the UK Government ran a public debate on GM food. With issues over food security, drought and a booming population intensifying, is the foodservice sector one of those asking for the technology to be given a second chance? David Burrows reports.
Environmentalists are beginning to change their minds about genetically modified (GM) foods. In his 2010 book, Whole Earth Discipline, American writer Stewart Brand writes: I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than any other thing weve been wrong about. Weve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool. Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, has made a similar u-turn from anti-GM campaigner - "the technology moves in entirely the wrong direction" - to GM supporter - "environmentalists should not be afraid of this prospect; they should welcome it."
Its fair to say that while the rest of the world has embraced GM technology, Europe has tried to keep the genie in the bottle. Only Spain has any notable harvests of GM crops with around 100,000 hectares of maize that has been developed to resist attack from various insect pests. Indeed, strict European regulation, political opposition and plans to allow Member States more flexibility to restrict or ban GM crops recently saw chemical company BASF pull the plug on development and commercialization of all products targeted solely at Europe. The situation, says a BASF spokesperson, is getting worse rather than better, so the company had little choice but to move its focus to where GM makes business sense.
Politicians are changing their minds too. Ironically, BASFs move came just a couple of weeks after the UK Farming Minister had suggested that the technology needs to be given a second chance. "GM is not the answer to everything, but in the foreseeable future we'll have nitrogen-fixing wheat if that isn't going to be a major development I don't know what is, said Jim Paice at the Oxford Farming Conference. People may leave their ethics at home when it comes to eating out, but that doesnt absolve foodservice businesses from responsibilities to educate and inform.
Mary Creagh, Labour's shadow environment secretary, used her speech to call for scientists to better explain the benefits of GM, and told the Guardian: "We have to keep an open mind on this. I don't think we should ignore the role science should play in tackling environmental challenges."
The Future of Food and Farming report, commissioned by the Government and published this time last year, also suggested that: New technologies such as the genetic modification of living organisms and the use of cloned livestock and nanotechnology should not be excluded on ethical or moral grounds, though there is a need to respect the views of people who take a contrary view.
And thats the big question: are people really opposed to the technology? The stance of the UK supermarkets would suggest so, as would evidence put forward by the likes of the Soil Association and GMFreeze. The public remain as sceptical now as they were in 2003, says Pete Riley, campaign director for the latter. Seventy one percent of people in a poll for Which? last summer thought supermarkets were right to avoid GM ingredients.
However, for every survey that plays into the hands of detractors, there is another that claims public antipathy is not quite so clear-cut (see page 6). Research carried out recently on behalf of the Crop Protection Agency found a softening in consumer attitudes with 35% of people saying they would support GM foods being stocked on supermarket shelves, while 44% would back GM if the technology kept food prices down.
But how do consumers feel about eating GM out of home? Studies suggest that people leave their ethics at home when it comes to eating out, but that doesnt absolve foodservice businesses from responsibilities to educate and inform. As in retail, labelling laws apply to GM food served by caterers: products containing GM material or GM ingredients must, says the Food Standards Agency, be labelled in accordance with GM food and feed regulations. And this includes highly refined products such as oil from GM maize.
The Soil Association suggests that some catering outlets arent aware of these laws. In 2008, York Trading Standards officers reported that a quarter of caterers were using GM oil and 94% were selling it unlabelled. This can result in a six month jail term and fines of up to £5,000 as a campaign by Norfolk Trading Standards publicised. Customers who actively want to avoid GM need to be asking questions and be aware of where GM is more likely, says the Soil Association, which has a Food for Life Catering mark that guarantees meals are GM-free.
Whether consumers want GM or not, and whether their ethics are left at the front door, some feel that the responsibility lies with caterers to inform. We can think about the Food Safety Act of 1990 that already places due diligence on the retailer, but regulation could serve to place [foodservice operators] more squarely as capable of weighing into ethical terrains such as awareness around GM foodstuffs, explains Emma Roe, an expert in human geography at the University of Southampton. I can already hear the proclamations that the aim is to meet the demands of consumers, not to blatantly shape what they eat [but] by virtue of the fact that there isn't a space to give information found on food packaging for foodservice meals, perhaps radical alternatives should be sought.
There is a huge ignorance about GM out there and we need to have discussions about education and understanding again. Caroline Fry. Having approached a number of big catering companies for their opinion on GM, only one was prepared to go further than offer written details of their current policies. CH&Co serves no GM food, with its policy also stretching to GM-free animal feed for the livestock reared to produce its meat, eggs and dairy products. Its what our suppliers want, says CEO Caroline Fry.
By her own admission, Fry neither backs nor opposes GM, but she does want to understand the issue better. I see it as a bit like the issue with Halal we had last year: there is huge ignorance out there, she explains. What with [Dolly] the sheep and people wondering if theyll grow two heads if they eat it, I think we need to have discussions about education and understanding again. Our clients are not asking us about GM, but it will be a high profile issue so we need to pre-empt that.
There is clearly support for a debate around GM within the foodservice sector. A poll on foodservicefootprint.com found that 78% would like to see the debate re-opened, while 11% want nothing to do with the technology.
Back in 2003, when the Governments public debate around GM was just ramping up, Caroline Lucas, then an MEP and now an MP for the Green Party, wrote in a letter to the Financial Times: Europeans are increasingly speaking with one voice on genetic modification it is bad for the environment, bad for consumers and bad for farmers and producers. Almost 10 years on, Lucas hasnt changed her mind. Others, it seems, have. So let round two of the debate commence. Do you know the current GM labelling laws? More information on this issue is available at www.footprint.digital.