Food retailers wary over push for GM crops
The strongest call yet has gone to UK farmers to grow genetically modified crops but the response of food retailers reflects a continuing public wariness.
One supermarket chain is so reluctant that it hints it will introduce GM-originated products only when it has to.
The UK government minister overseeing GM issues, environment secretary Owen Paterson, has trumpeted “significant economic, environmental and international benefits” from implementing the technology.
Speaking at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, one of the world’s oldest agricultural research institutions, Paterson quoted findings that farm production must rise by 60% during the next 40 years to satisfy demand and recommended GM plant breeding to boost crop yields.
GM crops offered easier and cheaper pest and weed control, minimised soil erosion and reduced fuel and chemical use.
Paterson understood people’s health and environmental fears – and the critics’ Frankenfood label – but emphasised that studies throughout the world had produced no scientific evidence of risks from GM crops and suggested today’s precise technology and regulatory scrutiny probably made them safer than conventional plants.
Other advantages highlighted in Paterson’s speech were the vitamin A content that would protect children in poor countries from blindness, the potential for new medicines, the hardiness of GM crops during droughts, and higher yields to feed developing countries.
For ecologists Paterson’s message was that efficient cultivation would release more areas as natural habitats.
For economists he said GM cotton uptake had increased in India 216-fold in 10 years and had raised farm income by $12.6bn (£8bn, €9.5bn).
However, Waitrose, one of the UK’s leading grocery chains, was unenthusiastic.
Quentin Clark, head of sustainability and ethical sourcing, told Ethical Performance: “We intend to stay as GM-free as we can for as long as we can. We believe this is what our customers want.”
He said non-GM plant breeding was showing good results and Waitrose itself was developing the sourcing of British barley and wheat to serve pig farms locally.
In addition, large amounts of GM-generated food would hit the organic farmers who supply many products to Waitrose, and this would restrict customers’ choice. There was no conclusive evidence anyway that GM techniques lower food prices, said Clark.
Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, responded similarly that some customers were worried about GM ingredients. Tesco’s own-brand goods are therefore GM-free, and non-Tesco branded products with GM content are labelled to enable customers to choose.
A company statement said: “We will continue to listen to our customers, monitor scientific research and be guided by the Food Standards Agency’s advice.”
A third large food retailer to be guided by its public is J. Sainsbury. The group says that, despite government advice, it acknowledges customers’ concerns and excludes GM crops, ingredients, additives and derivatives from the own-label products in its shops.
Friends of the Earth claimed other types of conventional farming science were providing drought-tolerant crops. The charity’s food campaigner Kirtana Chandrasekaran said: “They are starved of funding. We are continuing to flog GM when it’s not delivering what we need.”
The Soil Association maintained that GM techniques destroy the systems needed to feed the world. Policy director Peter Melchett said: “We need farming that helps poorer African and Asian farmers produce food, not farming that helps Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto produce profits.”
Nevertheless, Paterson insisted in his presentation: “The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits.”