A row over the banning of GM feed by British supermarkets raises wider issues about how far new technology can be used to solve problems of world food shortage. There have been calls for a second ‘green revolution’, but the first green revolution was based on intensive use of fertilisers and irrigation. Fertilisers are rocketing in price while irrigation is a less environmentally friendly option in a time of climate change.
The next technological revolution is likely to involve GM crops, but they face intense resistance in Northern Europe with the concerns of consumers fanned by environmental groups. This applies as much to imports as to local production. The phrase ‘Frankenstein foods’ has lodged itself in consumers’ minds.
Spiralling food prices are placing supermarkets under pressure from farmers’ leaders to put poultry fed with genetically modified products back on the shelves. The English National Farmers’ Union has held talks with the product managers of all the major supermarkets to explain that shortages of non-GM soyabeans – the key protien source for poultry – was making it both extremely expensive and increasingly difficult to source the GM-free products demanded by retailers.
There is no sign yet that the campaign has forced a change in policy. Supermarkets are very jealous of their green image which they see as giving them an edge over competitors, particular in value added markets where price is not the only differentiator. Sainsbury’s have sad that they are investigating ‘potential sustainable solutions.’ Two of the greenest supermarkets, Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, have said that they will not change their policy.
As the world’s biggest exporters have devoted more land to GM crops, the cost of unmodified soyabeans is rising. British farmers are currently paying around £276 per tonne for GM soya and £293/t for non-GM. With the US, the world’s biggest producer, now 95 per cent GM, the UK has looked to Brazil for a GM-free alternative. But Brazil, the world’s second biggest soya exporter, is expected to increase GM plantings from 54 per cent of its total crop to 65 per cent next year and 80 per cent over the next decade.