CHANGES TO European laws and a labelling battle in the US have brought GM back in the spotlight. But will freedom to choose boost organic sales?
There's rarely a dull moment in the debate on genetic modification Farmers Guardian, (GM). But this month has been a rollercoaster.
First, the EU environment council announced that member states rather than Brussels can now dictate whether plants are approved or banned. It’s a move that pleased no-one – apart from the UK environment secretary.
Second, as reported in Farmers Guardian, the chairman of the UK’s largest organic milk co-operative broke ranks with the rest of the organic sector. GM “is not the right thing to do, but I believe people should have the choice,” said Lyndon Edwards from the Organic Milk Suppliers Conference (OMSCo).
And third, across the pond, the ice- cream maker Ben & Jerry’s moved to rename Chocolate Fudge Brownie – one of its most iconic flavours – to Food Fight Fudge Brownie. A portion of each GM- free tub sold will go to a fund to combat opposition to a new law in Vermont that requires products to be labelled if they contain GM ingredients (ironically, Ben & Jerry’s owner, Unilever, is one of those opposing the law through the US Grocery Manufacturers Association).
“We’re not scientists, and we know there are debates pro and con about GMO usage,” Ben & Jerry’s states on its website. “Regardless of the debate, Ben & Jerry’s believes people should be informed and have the right to decide for themselves.”
Those in biotech tend to agree. “A company like ours (Bayer CropScience) will live and die in the marketplace. If people won’t buy [GM], supermarkets won’t stock it and farmers won’t grow it,” says Julian Little, the government affairs manager at Bayer and chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council.
Choice, it seems, is what Europe, OMSCo, Vermont, Ben & Jerry’s and big biotech all agree on. Never was it thus in this debate.
So with Europe changing its stance, will GM crops flood the UK? Will organic die a death as the modified plants spread across boundaries and contaminate neighbouring organic farms? And will we all be surviving on “Frankenstein foods”?
Unlikely. The former UK environment secretary, Owen Paterson, an unabashed supporter of the technology, welcomed Europe’s change in stance and wants Europe to embrace GM or risk becoming “the museum of world farming”. Yet Scotland and Wales are GM-free and proud of it. “The cultivation of GM crops would ... damage Scotland’s image as a land of food and drink,” reads Holyrood’s website.
And this is the critical point: image. Peter Melchett, the policy director of the organic certification body the Soil Association, says England “risks getting a reputation as the GM centre of Europe”. However, it willbe the market, not politicians, that decides what’s grown and what isn’t. “Owen Paterson can make [pro] GM speeches but until Sainsbury’s and Tesco say they’ll stock [GM food] farmers should listen to their markets.”
One could argue they already do. Many of the big supermarkets have recently changed their policies to allow poultry farmers to feed GM soy to their chickens, with no apparent nosedive in sales – though there isn’t the requirement to label it as GM.
Bayer’s Little also wants choice. “From the beginning we’ve said that if people don’t want to buy GM, as some suggest, then [growing GM crops in the UK] could be the best marketing ploy ever for the organic sector. Maybe this is the kickstart organic has been waiting for.”
It’s no secret that the organic market has had a torrid few years, with many supermarkets delisting the foods on the basis that they are too expensive. The land used to grow organic crops has also been falling. Then the horse meat scandal broke.
Last year, organic year-on-year value sales increased throughout 2013, according to Kantar Worldpanel figures, while the Soil Association’s 2014 market report provided more than a suggestion of recovery.
So, with consumers keener than ever to know what’s in their food – 83% want more information according to a Trace One survey in May – perhaps now is the best time to let GM and GM-free into the ring?