Consumers said no to the GM farming giants a decade ago, but that didn't stop millions of tonnes of their soya entering the food chain
16 October 2009
Ten years ago, when the genetic modification of food was first offered to the British public, it responded with a resounding no, and politicians and the food industry said GM would not be foisted on reluctant consumers. As far as most people are concerned, that is still the situation today; they think their diet remains GM-free. A report from the Royal Society to be published on Wednesday will spark an intense new phase in the GM debate, however, during which the public may be surprised to discover how far GM has already penetrated our food supply.
The report's contents are strictly embargoed but it's a safe bet that its authors, many of whom work in biotechnology research, will argue that we need to put aside any suspicions and embrace GM if there is to be any chance of feeding the world's growing population in the face of climate change and growing scarcity of water and land.
The government has been waiting for the report since a cabinet meeting at the turn of the year. Back then the prime minister, all secretaries of state with responsibilities that touch upon food, the chief scientist Sir John Beddington, and the then chair of the Food Standards Agency Dame Deirdre Hutton, got together to discuss what they saw as an urgent dilemma: they believed that the official line on GM had become untenable, according to a well-placed source.
Of the 2.6m tonnes of soya imported into the UK last year, nearly two-thirds was genetically modified. The vast majority of this came from the Americas and was used as animal feed, although most people remain unaware of it. GM soya oil is also now used in quantity in the catering industry, according to government reports.
"We are living a lie", is how one senior food industry executive put it in discussions with Whitehall officials.
"My wake up and worry moments are about high levels of GM being found in the UK feed chain where it's claimed to be GM-free," a leading retail figure has told the Guardian.
Shipping in GM soya is perfectly legal, so long as the varieties imported are ones that have been authorised by the EU. The variety of GM soya that currently dominates global production, Monsanto's Roundup Ready, has been authorised by the EU. However, some newer varieties have not yet been approved here. Importing even trace levels of unauthorised varieties is illegal, and industry has been pushing hard to have the approval process speeded up. Any GM food sold directly to the consumer also has to be labelled.
With so much imported GM soya in the system, a senior official told us: "It seems increasingly unlikely that food on the shelves in the UK is free of GM. Identity-preserved chains [in which manufacturers and retailers track the source of their soya at every stage back to non-GM plantings] are becoming very, very difficult and there is just so much GM coming in, the probability is that, if you tested food from the supermarket shelf, you would find traces of GM in it. There is great anxiety about it."
In fact a special report on food commissioned by the prime minister from the Cabinet Office strategy unit highlighted GM as an immediate domestic issue back in the summer of 2008. It said: "Consumer confidence in UK regulations, regulators and food supplies might be prejudiced if GM feed was found in systems claiming to be GM-free or if non-authorised varieties were detected in the UK food chain. If non-authorised material is found, there are also significant cost implications associated with recall."
Perhaps fortunately for industry and government, almost no GM testing of food products is currently conducted. To keep ahead of a crisis, the cabinet meeting decided that the independent Royal Society report would represent an opportunity for a respectable shift in government position.
Several departments have been persuaded that GM will be needed to tackle the pressures of population growth and climate change. Many scientists have also argued that GM research could make some contribution to calming the "perfect storm" threatening global food supply that Beddington has warned we face in the coming decades. It was also agreed that the Food Standards Agency should reopen the debate with the public about GM which it did last month by announcing new research on consumer opinion. Announcements from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) over the summer also began to frame GM as a new moral imperative in feeding the world.
A Defra spokeswoman said today: "We have not yet seen the report, but we look forward to its release and will read it with interest. Our top priority is to safeguard human health and the environment and always follow the science. We recognise that GM crops could offer a range of potential benefits over the longer term."
Up for a fight
The anti-GM lobby meanwhile have been squaring up for a fight over the Royal Society report ever since the project was conceived. A group of development and environmental charities wrote an open letter last October, accusing the Royal Society of failing to look at the real causes of the global food crisis. They said that the new work would be "of limited value" if it focused on "proprietary technologies" controlled by agribusiness. They also asked why it was needed when a UN-sponsored four-year review, involving more than 400 international scientists and chaired by Defra's own chief scientist, Professor Robert Watson, had already concluded that GM technologies were unlikely to have more than a limited role in tackling global hunger.
According to the Watson-led review, the scientific evidence on the claimed benefits of GM suggests they are variable, with increases in yield in some areas but decreases in others, and both greater and lesser pesticide use in different contexts. But crucially it concluded that global hunger is as much to do with power and control of the food system as with growing enough food.
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at London's City University and government adviser on sustainable development, says: "There is no technical fix to the huge issue of food security. If there were a "people's GM", I wouldn't be against it. But the problem with GM is the way it has been introduced, primarily as a way of maintaining the sales of pesticide companies."
The concentration of corporate power in commercial seed and agrochemical production is unprecedented, as is its crossover with the powerful US-based commodity trading corporations Cargill, ADM and Bunge.
In the space of less than three decades, intellectual property rights have been applied to 82% of the global seed market, according to data collected by campaign group ETC.
Three companies now control nearly half of the total global market in proprietary seeds, worth $22bn (£13.5bn) a year. In 2007, the US-based Monsanto accounted for nearly a quarter of the total global market (23%), followed by another American company, DuPont (15%) and Swiss-headquartered Syngenta (9%).
Just six companies the above three plus Bayer, BASF and Dow AgroSciences control three-quarters of the global agrochemical market. Until recently they were often engaged in bitter litigation with each other DuPont is currently claiming that Monsanto operates an illegal monopoly in the US, an allegation denied by Monsanto and being investigated along with soya seed price hikes by the US department of justice. But the more recent trend has been to form strategic alliances. For example, in 2007 Monsanto and Syngenta dropped litigation over intellectual property rights against each other and agreed cross-licences instead.
For John Fagan, chief scientist at Cert-ID, it is this corporate concentration and the realities of global trade that are at the heart of the UK government's perceived dilemma over GM. Fagan does not believe the dilemma is a real one. His company is the leading US certifier of non-GM soya for import from Brazil to Europe and the idea that GM-free chains of supply are too hard to maintain is "garbage" he says. Brazil has more than enough GM-free soya to keep the UK going and, despite the fears of the food and farming industry and Whitehall departments, will continue to plant non-GM so long as it gets paid to keep different supplies segregated.
"The big US agricultural commodity traders Cargill, ADM and Bunge have major biotech seed research projects of their own," said Fagan. "They have deep alliances with Monsanto and Syngenta. They want US GM soya to be accepted uncritically in Europe and they would prefer every soya bean on the planet to be equal to every other soya bean because that's what profitable commodity trading is about."
There is unease among scientists too that agribusiness restricts the kind of research on GM that might actually spread any potential benefits. An editorial in Scientific American magazine complained recently that it was "impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised".
"Agritech companies have given themselves the power of veto of the work of independent researchers. Under threat of litigation, scientists cannot compare seeds [or test whether] crops lead to unintended environmental effects ... Only studies the seed companies have approved see the light of day," it said.
The Royal Society report looks certain to walk into a perfect storm all of its own.