The 1990s ‘Frankenfoods’ outcry led to the EU introducing compulsory labelling of foods containing GM or GM-derived ingredients; however, Regulation 1829/2003 says foods such as meat, milk and eggs produced from animals that consume GM animal feed do not need to be labelled.
GM by the back door?
Last week The Telegraph newspaper published a survey of leading brands such as Hellman’s Mayonnaise, Lurpak butter, Cathedral City cheese, Cravendale Milk and Magnum ice cream: the brand owners said they could not guarantee that their products contained no ingredients from animals fed GM soy.
An environment minister in Tony Blair’s government, Meacher (still MP for Oldham West) told FoodManufacture.co.uk that there had not been enough studies on the long-term health implications of meat and dairy from animals fed GM soy.
“That is what I feel, it is a much-covered area." Speaking more broadly of GM foods he added: "Since the early GM years in the US is to say they [GM foods] harm no-one, but the fact is this has been little investigated,” he said.
“No-one is saying GM kills or causes grave illness. Limited experiments have been done on rats, rabbits, animals that suggest the effects of GM materials in small quantities can cause problems,” including thickening of the stomach lining, said Meacher.
Consumer choice issue
Asked about the GM soy feed issue Barbara Gallani, The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director of food safety and science said: “The FDF recognises that some consumers may wish to choose products which do not contain GM-derived ingredients, and UK food and drink manufacturers will continue to provide choice.
“There are currently very few GM food products available on the UK market as just a few varieties of soya and maize have been approved for use in the EU. If GM soya is present in foods as an ingredient, this information will be available on the label.
“Products from animals fed on GM feed (milk, eggs, butter, meat etc.) are exempt from GM labelling requirements. The Food Standards Agency has repeatedly stated that 'food from animals fed on authorised GM crops is considered to be as safe as food from animals fed on non-GM crops' ."
The increased use of biotechnology globally means that UK livestock will receive a growing proportion of GM crops in their feed, said Gallani, who added this was largely unavoidable, since the UK has always been reliant on animal feed imports.
”The FDF believes that modern biotechnology, including GM, has the potential to be one of the ways to improve the quality and quantity of the food supply but its impact must be objectively and scientifically assessed," she said.
“Robust controls are necessary to protect the consumer and the environment; and consumer understanding of both potential risks and benefits is fundamental to public acceptance.”
Less herbicide, higher yields…
But Meacher disputed the argument that GM crops demand less herbicide and achieve higher yields, citing work by Charles Benbrook (now chief scientist at US Organic Center).
He said Benbrook concluded upon the basis of a 5-6 year period that it is true that yields rise, at least in the first 1-2 years, and the need to use chemicals diminishes, but that after that as weeds adapt they are extremely tough to remove.
Superweeds even develop that no amount of modern herbicides can remedy, Meacher said Benbrook found, which can only be removed by harsh traditional herbicides such as pararquat. This has linked by the US National Institutes of Health to Parkinson’s Disease in a February 2011 study.
Growing world population
But asked whether GM progress was inevitable, given the need to feed a growing world population and a clean bill of health for GM soy-fed animal products from the Food Standards Agency (FSA), Meacher said.
“The way it’s going it does seem inevitable, but we should take measures, including a moratorium on GM until adequate and thorough experiments are undertaken.
“We do have a growing world population, but the main problem is that food [Meacher said we produce enough to fulfil world needs] is grossly mal-distributed, as is land. Peasants around the world still have no land at all, while there are huge landed estates.”
While Meacher described the UK as the most prominent pro-GM power in EU, he said other nations strongly opposed the technology, including Italy, France, Germany, Greece and Benelux countries.
Reflecting on his days in government he added:“Civil servants in DEFRA [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] have always been very strongly pro-GM.”
US agri-tech companies do a lot of government lobbying, said Meacher, especially in the US where there is government support; to a “lesser degree” this also applies in the UK.