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Tesco boss prepares for GM u-turn

By Elaine Watson , 02-Feb-2009

Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy has admitted UK supermarkets may have been too quick to jump on the non-GM bandwagon and signalled Tesco is willing to re-open the debate.

Speaking in a panel debate after delivering the City Food Lecture in London last week, Leahy said: “It may have been a failure of us all to stand by the science.

“Maybe there is an opportunity to discuss again these issues and a growing appreciation by people that GM could play a vital role [in feeding the world’s growing population in the face of climate change].”

Former Food Standards Agency chairman professor Lord John Krebs, who also took part in the debate, said: “The moral tragedy of the whole GM debacle was the fact that European prissiness about genetic modification has affected its adoption in Africa.”

National Farmers' Union president Peter Kendall highlighted the irony that meat from animals in South America fed on GM feed unauthorised in Europe could still be legally imported into the EU - and at more competitive prices.

Their comments reflect a growing feeling amongst scientists, food industry bosses and some politicians that the European Union’s stance on GM is increasingly unsustainable.

Indeed, vast tracts of land outside the EU are now devoted to producing GM crops. That meant maintaining a non-GM sourcing policy on animal feed was becoming increasingly costly and impractical, said the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC).

The EU’s zero tolerance stance on imports of feedstocks containing unauthorised GM materials had already “practically stopped the import of maize gluten feed and corn distillers”, said AIC feed executive chairman Tony Bell.

Meanwhile, doubling domestic production of non-GM soybeans would “only hope to fill 13% of Europe’s current demand of soybean meal”, he claimed.

One industry source added: “I am pretty certain that several parties involved are actively looking for the way out of their Canute-like positions. Maybe the reality of the costs of GM-avoidance is finally striking home.”

Former Unilever chief scientist professor Peter Lillford, chair of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC’s) food steering group, predicted the supermarkets would be forced into a u-turn on GM in an interview with Food Manufacture last month: “The supermarkets are going to have to do a u-turn on GM I’d say in the next three years. We’re in a ludicrous position. Go to India or South America and talk about this and you realise it really is a British backyard issue on the world stage.”

A report launched by the RSC and the Institution of Chemical Engineers last month advocated genetic modification “for the development of plants that are capable of withstanding the effects of climate change; have improved nitrogen-fixing characteristics; enhance nutrition by production of vitamins and omega-3 oils; use fertilisers more efficiently; have reduced anti-nutritive factors; resist disease and pests; and survive on alternative nutrients, all of which will help to provide the basic staples at affordable prices to an increasing world population”.

It added: “The higher yields obtained by the genetic modification of crops are believed to have saved millions of square miles of wildlife habitat from conversion to agricultural use.”

Speaking at the launch of the report at Portcullis House in London, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs secretary of state Hilary Benn said: “If we’re going to feed another 3bn people in the next 40 years we’ll need science to help us.”

Dame Suzi Leather, chair of a new advisory body to the government called The Council of Food Policy Advisers, added: “We can’t continue with this polarised thinking that modern science has all the answers or none of them.”

However, Emma Hockridge, Soil Association campaigner, said: “Proponents of GM technology have been claiming to be on the brink of developing a range of benefits for years, but these have not delivered.”

She added: “The claims of increased yields have been widely discredited. Concerns about growing and eating GM food are justified by both experience and scientific research. Once these GM crops are released into the environment, they will spread, and transfer GM traits to related native plants. Once released, they can never be recalled. This is a poorly understood, inherently uncertain and potentially very dangerous technology.”