Britain’s supermarket giants have been accused of caving in to the genetic modification lobby by dropping their decade-long stance against selling chickens fed on genetically modified crops.
The move has been seen as a key victory for GM food giants such as Monsanto which, environmental groups claim, will benefit from the switch. It is also being seen as a precursor to the introduction of GM meat and poultry by “softening up” consumer resistance to the controversial technology.
It has emerged that Marks & Spencer, the Co-operative and Sainsbury’s are following Tesco, Asda and Morrisons and reversing policies that prohibit their suppliers from feeding GM soya to chickens used in the production of their own-brand eggs and poultry. The move came following fierce lobbying from groups such as the National Farmers Union and the British Poultry Council.
The supermarket giants said suppliers had told them that non-GM feed for poultry is now too difficult and too expensive to obtain. There are also concerns that there is a risk non-GM and GM animal feed could become mixed up, making it more difficult to police the UK food chain.
But non-GM feed producers in Brazil, a major source of animal feed to the UK, expressed surprise at the claims, saying they were producing record amounts of animal feed. They said there was no difficulty separating the two types of feed and claimed the move was more about the UK wanting to do more business with US GM companies.
Environmental groups warned that there would be consumer protests if non-GM options were removed. “The supermarkets should stand up for their customers and secure long-term contracts for all their non-GM food and feed supplies,” said Dr Helen Wallace of the campaign group GeneWatch UK, which is critical of the GM lobby. “If access to non-GM feed for chickens is allowed to be blocked today, how long before we have no choices left?
“People have a right to choose what food they want to eat and we must guard against corporate interests, cartels and monopolies taking over global food and feed supplies.”
The UK’s new position is at odds with its European neighbours. Supermarket chains in Germany, France and Austria are increasing their use of non-GM soya in livestock production in response to consumer demand. French supermarket giant Carrefour is launching a label to signal to its customers that its animals have not been fed GM food. Abrange, which represents Brazil’s non-GM soya producers, said that the desire for clearer labelling was shared by the British public. It pointed to a recent survey that suggested 67% of people prefer milk, eggs, poultry and meat produced with non-GM feed.
It said claims that non-GM soya was hard to source following a temporary slowdown in exports were inaccurate. “This year Brazil has enjoyed a record soybean harvest of over 82m tonnes, large enough to more than provide Europe’s entire soya meal demand,” Abrange said.
The organisation said it believed the UK was repositioning itself on GM technology. “This change could well have as much to do with interest in opening the UK to imports of GM soya from the US than to the temporary slowdown in Brazil.”
In a statement Tim J Smith, Tesco group technical director, explained that the supermarket chain was making the decision to buy livestock fed on GM soya because the risk of finding GM material in non-GM feed was increasing and because 80% of the world’s soya is now modified.
Environmental groups believe the government is increasingly enthusiastic about GM. Environment secretary Owen Paterson has branded sceptics of the technology as “humbugs”. Supporters say GM food will help feed a burgeoning population, but sceptics say the claims made for the technology are overblown.
A Monsanto spokesman said they were not aware of a rise in demand for its GM soya product since the supermarkets changed their policy. He said the supermarkets’ decision was taken after lobbying from farmers’ groups, concerned about the rising costs of animal feed, not as a result of pressure from the GM lobby.
An international protest planned for later this month against biotechnology company Monsanto is slated to span six continents and include demonstrations in dozens of countries around the globe.
Amid growing concerns over St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto and the impact the company is having on agriculture, activists have planned rallies for later this month in 36 countries.
Monsanto, a titan of the emerging biotech industry, has come under attack from environmentalists, agriculturalists and average consumers over the company’s conduct in the realm of genetically-modified organisms and genetically-engineered foods. Despite research on the effects of GMO crops being largely considered inconclusive, Monsanto has lobbied hard in Washington and around the globe to be able to continue manufacturing lab-made foods without the oversight that many have demanded.
In March, Congress passed a biotech rider dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act” by its critics that essentially allows that company and others that use GMOs to plant and sell genetically-altered products without gaining federal permission.
“The provision would strip federal courts of the authority to halt the sale and planting of an illegal, potentially hazardous GE crop while the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) assesses those potential hazards,” dozens of food businesses and retailers wrote Congress before the bill was passed.
In the weeks since the rider was approved within an annual agriculture spending bill, anti-Monsanto sentiment has only increased. The international day of protest scheduled for May 25 is now looking at becoming one for the record books, and even a number of celebrities have lent their star power to help raise awareness of the movement.
“Here in America you don’t get the right to know whether you’re eating genetically modified organisms,” award-winning music performer Dave Matthews says in a video for the march that has been uploaded to the Web. Comedian Bill Maher and actor Danny DeVito also appeared in the clip to plead with people around the world to rally against GMO companies.
But even as the anti-Monsanto movement increases in intensity, the company itself continues to generate record-setting profits. In April the company announced a 22 percent increase in net profits, and representatives for the companies said they expect to see that trend continue.
“So our bottom line business outlook today means the momentum that we anticipated in our first quarter has clearly carried through into even stronger business results for the second quarter,” CEO Hugh Grant told analysts and reporters during a phone call last month.
Earlier this year, Grant told the Wall Street Journal that despite an international backlash, venues around the world have been unable to link to his company with any concrete health risks caused by their products.
“They’re the most-tested food product that the world has ever seen. Europe set up its own Food Standards Agency, which has now spent €300 million ($403.7 million), and has concluded that these technologies are safe,” Grant said in January. “France determined there’s no safety issue on a corn line we submitted there. So there’s always a great deal of political noise and turmoil. If you strip that back and you get to the science, the science is very strong around these technologies.”
But despite those claims, anti-Monsanto actions are expected to continue as planned around the world — and in those very countries. Four demonstrations are scheduled for Britain, including events in London and Bristol, and two separate events are scheduled for May 25 in Paris. In the US, demos are planned in 48 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia.
When scientists first learned in the late 1970s how to sequence DNA and transfer it from one kind of organism to another, improving foods and other crop plants by introducing foreign genes was among the first applications proposed. Given contemporaneous findings in molecular genetics, such as the recognition that a mutation in a single gene could promote a cell’s transformation to cancerous state, it was unsurprising that concerns were raised about the capability of the transgenic methods to dramatically change the biochemistry or ecological stability of plants. Some critics suggested that the quality and safety of fruits and vegetables could be impaired, making them allergenic or toxic to humans and nonhumans who consume them, or that “superweeds” might be created which could disrupt wild or farmed ecosystems.
By 2005, however, when more than 90 percent of the annual soybean crop and 50 percent of the corn crop in the United States had come to be genetically engineered – a transformation in agricultural production that took less than a decade – efforts at testing and regulation of genetically modified (GM) foods were increasingly portrayed as irrational. A perusal of the summaries of recent policy articles on the PubMed database turns up dozens in which reservations about the massive introduction of GM food into the food chain are represented as scientifically ignorant, economically suicidal, and cruel to the world’s hungry. One abstract in the journal Nature reads: “Unjustified and impractical legal requirements are stopping genetically engineered crops from saving millions from starvation and malnutrition.”
These papers-many by European commentators decrying the successful efforts to keep GM foods out of the markets there, and some by U.S. commentators bemoaning the necessity to test these products at all-mainly support their cases by referencing short-term feeding studies of animals. But this type of study is not adequate to allay valid concerns. One group, reviewing the relevant areas, has written, “It appears that there are no adverse effects of GM crops on many species of animals in acute and short-term feeding studies, but serious debates of effects of long-term and multigenerational feeding studies remain.”
According to another group that has looked into these issues:
The most detailed regulatory tests on the GMOs are three-month long feeding trials of laboratory rats, which are biochemically assessed…The test data and the corresponding results are kept in secret by the companies. Our previous analyses…of three GM maize [varieties] led us to conclude that [liver and kidney] toxicities were possible, and that longer testing was necessary.
Another team actually performed such long-term studies, with the findings that mice that were fed for five consecutive generations with transgenic grain resistant to a herbicide showed enlarged lymph nodes and increased white blood cells, a significant decrease in the percentage of T lymphocytes in the spleen and lymph nodes and of B lymphocytes in lymph nodes and blood in comparison to control fed for the same number of generations with conventional grain.
A central issue for crop foods, of course, is their effects on humans. The most comprehensive review of this subject as of 2007 stated:
…the genetically modified (GM) products that are currently on the international market have all passed risk assessments conducted by national authorities. These assessments have not indicated any risk to human health. In spite of this clear statement, it is quite amazing to note that the review articles published in international scientific journals during the current decade did not find, or the number was particularly small, references concerning human and animal toxicological/health risks studies on GM foods.
The same group revisited the literature four years later, reporting that whereas the number of citations found in databases had dramatically increased in the intervening period, new information on products such as potatoes, cucumber, peas or tomatoes, among others was not available. Regarding corn, rice, and soybeans, there was a balance in the number of studies suggesting that GM corn and soybeans are as safe and nutritious as the respective conventional non-GM plant, and those raising still serious concerns. They also note that “most of these studies have been conducted by biotechnology companies responsible [for] commercializing these GM plants.”
Given the uncertainties of the long-term health impact of GM foods, it is significant that so far, virtually all genetic modification of food and fiber crops has focused on the economic aspects of production (i.e., making crops resistant to herbicides and insect damage, increasing transportability and shelf-life) rather than the more elusive goals of improving nutrition or flavor. Introducing biological qualities that enhance production, transportability and shelf life can compromise palatability, as seen with the Flavr Savr tomato, the first GM crop to be approved by the FDA for human consumption, two decades ago.
To protect its investment against a skeptical public, the biotech food industry has depended on compliant regulators, on its proponents’ ridicule of biotech industry critics’ supposed scientific ignorance,[11,12] and on expensive campaigns against labeling of prepared foods that would draw undue attention to the presence of GM components, which they claim to be natural and ordinary. (These are the same components that when presented to the Patent Office and potential investors are portrayed as novel and unique.) A food crop that actually benefited the people who eat it rather than only those who sell it would likely open the floodgates of greatly weakened regulation. Golden Rice, designed to provide Vitamin A to malnourished children, has failed to overcome the hurdles for approval for dietary use since it was first described in 2000. Though very limited in its ability to alleviate malnutrition, it has some merit in the prevention of blindness, and seems poised for approval in the next year or so. If so, it will almost certainly help agribusiness tighten its grip on the world food supply and increase its capacity to foist products that are much more questionable on their captive clientele-that is, everyone.