Watching UK’s National Farmers Union (NFU) President Peter Kendall testify to the UK Parliamentary Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ inquiry into horse meat contamination of the EU beef supply on March 5, I was struck again by the inconsistencies in the NFU approach when it comes to GM animal feed.
I have three questions for the NFU:
1) In his testimony, Mr. Kendall repeated the position that short supply chains are the answer to predictable control of our meat supply and regaining consumer confidence. How does this tally with the repeated insistence that UK livestock farmers need industrial GM feed from the Americas traded through complex international commodity markets?
Much is made about the allegedly dwindling availability of non-GM soy (known in the UK as soya), but the non-GM soya industry itself paints a rather different picture. On February 26, Augusto Freire, Managing Director of Cert-ID (a company certifying non-GM soya supplies), said, “20-25% of Brazilian soybean production is free from genetic modification for the 2012/13 crop. China’s and India’s soy production is 100% Non-GMO….Estimates for 2013 are strongly up compared to earlier years due to adoption of the CERT ID and ProTerra [non-GM certification] programs by new operators in Brazil, as well as increased demand in Europe.”
In the current climate, before supply and demand reduce the cost of non-GM feed, it may well be a bit more expensive per tonne, but according to our calculations if non-GM feed costs an extra £14/tonne (about $21.00), this works out to be a mere 3p/dozen eggs (about 5 cents). Mr. Kendall asks, “Are we going to produce chickens in this country that are non-GM, but buy them in from Asia because they are 20% cheaper and they are fed on GM [feed]?” Is he perhaps confusing feed costs with the poor animal husbandry that keeps meat from many non-European factory farms cheap?
We also need to be careful in working out how much animal feed is actually GM – any amount of GM feed comingled with an otherwise non-GM shipment means the entire quantity, and all subsequent feed bags, are labelled GM. This does not mean that feed is anything like 100% GM, and in fact the bulk of any animal feed is probably non-GM.
2) If, as Mr. Kendall says, UK farmers need “confidence” in the market to invest and improve UK beef production levels, why does this logic not apply to the farmers in Brazil already growing non-GM soya but unable to risk the costs of certification without confirmed advance orders from the EU to ensure they gets a return?
Augusto Freire notes, “An additional volume of Brazilian soy meal representing 1.5 million metric tonnes of soybeans could have been certified [as non-GM] if EU buyers had expressed their demand early in the year.” The non-GM soya is there, and more can be grown, we just need to say we want it. It’s not hard.
Consumer demand should boost confidence enough to take this step. A 2010 GfK/NOP poll showed fewer than 40% of supermarket shoppers were aware that imported GM animal feed fuels British factory farming, and 89% wanted these products to be clearly labelled. In January of this year the UK Food Standards Agency published research showing again that two-thirds of respondents want all use of GM feed to be labelled. Even among those undecided about GM food and crops respondents felt “some form of labelling should be in place to help them determine GM content and avoid choosing foods containing GM if they so wish”. Overall there is a clear indication this need to identify GM use applies to animal products in particular. People don’t want GM feed in the food chain, and they want clear labels to help them see where it is – or isn’t.
3) I completely agree that there is, as Mr. Kendall told the Committee, “too much focus on price” in the food industry. If this is the case, why are industrial crops feeding industrial megafarm production to produce cheap meat worthy of such vocal support?
True, there are vested interests on both sides of the discussion, and there are rumours that Indian soya is less desirable than Brazilian. Overall we’d be far better off moving away from the industrial meat model. Yet this does not explain why supermarkets can’t do their part in delivering what the market demands now by placing clear orders for non-GM soya (or non-GM fed products) to give Brazilian farmers the confidence they need to grow and certify non-GM crops. The NFU position invokes the market, but goes directly against the basics of supply and demand. The more non-GM feed is demanded, the more will be supplied, and the costs will come down—unless vested interests interfere with the market. Large supermarkets and dairies in other parts of Europe seem to be able to manage it, so it is very difficult to see why the UK is different.
Mr. Kendall told the NFU 2013 conference, “Today I want to talk about a pact with the great British consumer to get things changed…We now need supermarkets to stop scouring the world for the cheapest products they can find and start sourcing high quality, traceable, product from farmers here at home…That may mean more dedicated supply groups. It will certainly mean longer-term thinking and a shorter supply chain.” We agree, and we’re here to help.
Mr. Kendall, if you truly “Do not want food safety and standards to be politicised,” as you told the Committee, why do you say GM skepticism is “directly comparable to Nazi book-burning in the 1930’s”? Why do you not support your members in providing what the market clearly wants?
The situation with regard to GM animal feed looks increasingly like lucrative supply lines controlled by shippers and importers, not farmers, attempting to force an end to non-GM supplies on an unwilling market. The NFU position, which wedges farmers uncomfortably between their market and these vested interests, remains very difficult to understand. The sooner the NFU applies the logic it uses in the meat chain to the feed chain, the sooner consumers will begin to regain confidence in our food.
Mr. Kendall also told your 2013 conference consumers should demand answers from the people they buy from. We agree European consumers can and should get what they want.