Difficulties in sourcing non-GM soya threatens organic poultry sector

Increasing difficulties in sourcing non-GM soya could threaten the next generation of organic egg and poultry producers, warned leading independent compounder Martin Humphrey of Humphrey Feeds last month at the annual organic producers’ conference at Harper Adams University College

Rising premiums for GM-free soya, which would be essential for formulating organic feeds when organic rations became 100% organic in 2012, could make the conversion process to organic prohibitively costly, he told the conference.

After this date all producers would be obliged to use 100% organic rations during the in-conversion period, even though they would not be receiving the organic premiums for their products.

“I’m concerned we will cut off the lifeblood of new entrants,” said Mr Humphrey. “They are in danger of going out of business before they even start. Where do we get the next generation of organic poultry producers?”

So far, supplies of organic soya were still readily available, mostly from Brazil at a premium of around £20/t. But the expansion of GM-soya production in Brazil meant that it was getting harder to keep the two channels discrete and there were already cases of GM contamination of non-GM shipments.

“There is evidence that organic pollen can travel a long way,” he said. “Where will we be able to grow organic proteins safely? Contamination is still rare, but in future it may not be,” he warned.

It would only be made worse by more sensitive testing procedures which would pick up even very low levels of GM contamination.

“Who pays for a positive test on a shipment? The grower, trader, shipper, compounder or producer? Someone, somewhere is going to be paying.”

Consumer ‘will pay’

Mr Humphrey acknowledged that ultimately the end user would have to pay, reflected in very high premiums for non-GM soya.

“On the good side, I don’t think there will be non-GM in 2012 available in the conventional feed market, it will almost have run out. And that will be a clear point of difference for organic – something that consumers will understand.”

Peter Riley of the GM Freeze campaign believed there was some cause for greater optimism.

“The whole economics of GM production are changing,” he said. The key attribute of GM-soya was resistance to the herbicide Round Up, so that weeds could be controlled easily, but growers were now encountering resistance problems among the weeds they were trying to control, he claimed.

“A lot of people in America are regretting going down the GM route” he maintained.

Turning to wheat, Mr Humphrey believed the shortage of UK-grown organic wheat was likely to continue. To meet the organic ideal, raw materials should be locally sourced but at present the majority of organic wheat for UK producers was coming from the Ukraine.

Historically it was considered that organic wheat should be twice the price of conventional: “It was above that level some years ago, but it is not there now. We are at a ratio of 1.6 and that is no inducement to ensure we have UK farmers growing quality wheat.”

Looking ahead to the 2012 requirement to formulate rations that were 100% organic, he foresaw problems meeting specifications, especially on protein values.

Targeted diets

“In two years’ time I think there are going to be nutritional compromises in most of the specifications, and I’m a little bit concerned about that. It’s chiefly in the early diets, with the young birds. In the older birds you can get away with it.

“We may have to consider putting amino acids in targeted diets,” he suggested.

Otherwise there could be welfare concerns, as birds tended to look to their fellows to make up the deficiencies leading to cannibalism.

Already, with rations at 95% organic since January, he was struggling to achieve the right specification on early turkey rations.

Bruce Pearce from the Elm Farm Research Centre questioned whether it met the organic ideals to be importing cereals or proteins for thousands of miles away.

“British farms should be able to produce what we need,” he said. “We need to discover what we can produce in the UK, and how can we formulate diets and programmes for poultry and pigs so we can cut emissions and costs, hopefully dramatically.”

Work was being carried out at Sheepdrove Organic Farm with substitution of home grown whole grain wheat for complete diets for table birds.

“We rapidly saw 100% whole wheat wasn’t viable, but those at 70% reached finishing weight about a week-and-a-half behind control birds, and 30% inclusion showed no statistical difference. Sheepdrove have now gone across to whole wheat at 30% for its entire production system.