4 September 1999

Is there no end to these GM blues?

THERES a heap of trouble brewing with GM foods, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lets start with problems over there. The US soya and corn harvest is approaching fast. It will include a huge proportion – up to half – of GM material from an expanding range of GM varieties. This grain is moved onto ships from the end of September for the start of the exporting season.

Alarm bells are ringing in the US as the industry there has realised – perhaps too late – that some of newer GM soya and corn varieties have not yet been approved by Europes tortuously slow regulatory system. If any of these GM varieties are found in shipments this autumn, Europe would have a legally watertight excuse to block imports. The mind boggles as you consider what might happen as these varieties inevitably find their way into exported processed foods.

This scenario is worrying the biotech companies. They have written to US growers asking them to keep the new GM varieties separately, and use them for domestic purposes only. But it need only take a few grains contaminating a load to trigger a ban, and this could easily happen if containers are not cleaned thoroughly.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Pond, traders are searching frantically for supplies of non-GM material to satisfy demands from supermarkets for chicken, milk products and meat raised on non-GM feedstuffs. Its not an easy task. First, theres the issue of definition. Does GM-free mean 100% free – or is there an acceptable margin for error? Zero tolerance is what the hardliners are asking for, but this, traders say, is impossible. A 2% margin of error might be feasible – but would this satisfy supermarket buyers?

Second, is where to obtain GM-free supplies. The number of countries able to offer non-GM feedstuffs is shrinking. And those that say they can may not be able to guarantee 100% purity. From this harvest, the supply of non-GM commodities will not be enough to meet demand.

Were facing an impasse. The only way the supermarkets will be able to maintain a non-GM position for next year will be to charge their customers more for the privilege. Already M&S is talking about a 10% premium for its non-GM fed chickens. And given that soya, soya oil, and corn are found in most packets on the supermarket shelf, and will have featured in the diets of most of the animals we eat, are consumers really willing to pay 10% more at the checkout?

Campaign fights on

GIVEN that rain has spoilt the quality of this years harvest, some wheat is going to struggle to pass muster for the less demanding domestic markets, never mind meeting those strict intervention standards. But that doesnt stop us batting for a fair deal on wheat intervention.

If intervention became a realistic backstop to our market, it would support prices in the way it does elsewhere in Europe. Were not promoting the vision of UK wheat mountains. All we are asking for is a less obstructive attitude.

Our campaign can claim a partial victory (see page 6). But its still not enough, and we shall continue to lobby minister Nick Brown on your behalf.

Early bite

IF YOURE an early bird – beware of going too early. Drilling date trials run by plant breeder CPB Twyford show that varieties put in at the start of September were 2t/ha down on those that were sown two weeks later. For the record, those wheats which did best at mid-September sowing were the companys new varieties Genghis and Aardvark; bottom of the list were Riband, Rialto and Malacca. The company is including a wider range of varieties in this seasons trials; watch out for our exclusive coverage.

Seed woes

THERES nothing like rumours of shortages to put seed prices up. But are supplies really as tight as some traders would have us believe (see our Business report on page 21)? If they are, the NFU could have a case for requesting Brussels for a derogation on germination – from 85% to 80%, perhaps – this season. That would boost supply and reduce price. Help us clarify the situation on prices and supplies by telling us how much seed is costing in your area – and whether you can find enough of what you want. E-mail us at crops@rbi.co.uk; or fax us on 020 8652 8928.

Ace wheat

THE combines are busy; the race is on. One of our seven contenders will have produced a tonne of wheat at the lowest cost – and will claim their £1,000 cheque as a reward. Watch out for details of the winning formula in Crops.

Think you could do any better? Why not have a try? Entering the competition is easy. For an entry form, contact Four Seasons Publicity on 01869 338936 (fax 338578; or email fsp@fourseas.demon.co.uk). Next years cheque could have your name on it…