7 January 2000

Supermarkets begin moves to GM-free rations

By James Garner

MULTIPLE retailers are becoming increasingly keen to ensure stock is fed GM-free rations, and producers are likely to come under greater pressure to comply with their demands.

In response to consumer wishes, and having consulted industry about the issue, Tesco is now looking at ways of removing GM ingredients from animal rations.

In a letter sent out to producer club members, Tescos technical manager of fresh food, Martin Cooke, says: "We have concluded that removal of GM ingredients from animal feeds is achievable through a phased process and this can and must be done without incurring extra costs for our customers."

According to company spokes-man Simon Soffe, there is no definitive timescale for its implementation, although a press statement says Tesco wants suppliers to begin the process as the next Brazilian soya crop becomes available this spring.

The story is the same for other retailers. Asda spokesperson Rachel Fellows says customers have raised concerns about animal feeds which it is looking at. But she admits GM feed is a complicated issue.

Safeway and Waitrose both say they are looking into the issue, while Marks and Spencers livestock technologist, Chris Brown, says it already stocks exclusive non-GM lines in free-range poultry and pigmeat and would like to stock non-GM fed beef, lamb and dairy products.

Unlike Tesco, Marks and Spencer acknowledges the extra costs of feeding GM-free ingredients. Dr Brown says its non-GM food products sell at a premium, which is a true reflection of increased costs of rearing animals on GM-free feed.

The feed industry is reluctantly following retailers requirements, but experts reckon it will increase prices. Commodity trader Cargill says it is working towards sourcing non-GM soya. "We can source it, but it will cost more. It is impossible given the cash crop market, the way these crops are grown and the segregation needed in transportation and processing not to add cost."

Feed costs will rise, says UKASTAs policy director, Paul Rooke. "I do not see how you can avoid this. But both the feed industry and producers are unable to absorb any additional expense."

The intensive animal livestock sector would be the worst affected by a blanket move to non-GM feeds, says NFU feedstuffs adviser, Stuart Thomson. He says extra feed costs could kill this sector off. "It will make our products even less competitive with imports."

He also questions whether imports will be placed under the same feed restrictions. "We must stress that producers are customers – when buying feed – and are in the same dilemma as consumers."

He says most producers have taken a pragmatic approach, which means they want to be able to choose to buy GM-free feed, instead of being forced down one route or another.

How this will affect an already unstable soya market is unknown, says Mr Rooke. "Producers have held off buying forward because of this, which has caused uncertainty in the market, so it will probably become more volatile."

There are real anxieties over GM-free feed at farm level. Scottish pig producer and FW Farmer Focus contributor Dennis Bridgeford is concerned that further cost increases will make it even more difficult to compete with cheap imports.

"My initial reaction is retailers should be looking at imports from the Continent which are being fed on meat and bonemeal before insisting on GM-free diets for UK produced pigmeat."

Mr Bridgeford would swap to non-GM rations tomorrow if consumers want this and are prepared to pay extra for pigmeat produced in this way. But he has concerns over the availability of GM-free soya supplies.

Dairy producer Patrick Cock of Younghouse Farm, south Devon, has big reservations about supermarket demands for GM-free feed. "It is bad news and the farming unions should oppose it. It is a marketing gimmick, which is not practical and we will end up paying." &#42

GM-FREE FEED

&#8226 Retailers want it.

&#8226 Will increase feed costs.

&#8226 Intensive sector will be hardest hit.