Get set for the GM issue to become a whole lot more pertinent

ShelfLife acting editor, Gillian Hamill
ShelfLife acting editor, Gillian Hamill

With the UK government keen to explore GM technology, the issue will increasingly come to the fore over the coming years, writes Gillian Hamill



17 July 2013

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UK environment minister Owen Patterson recently launched a spirited defence of genetically-modified (GM) foods.
Speaking at the Rothamsted crop research station in Hertfordshire last month, he argued that with "one billion people on this planet who are chronically hungry," the UK had a moral duty to place itself at the "forefront" of GM research.

"It won’t be long until the population moves from seven to nine billion and we’ll have even fewer resources to feed them. It is our duty to explore technologies like GM because they may hold the answers to the very serious challenges ahead," he said.

While Patterson’s speech has once again brought the GM debate into the UK’s spotlight, there are of course some consumers for whom the issue never actually went away. A point in case is anti-GM campaigner Stella Coffey who ShelfLife interviewed last April. 

Coffey set up a petition in a bid to persuade the government to introduce a five-year moratorium on growing GM crops and food in Ireland, on the grounds that not enough is yet known about their effects. At the time of our interview, she had gained almost 1,900 signatories.

GM foods were likewise front of mind for myself last month when I was invited to give a talk about ‘Food retailers and GM’ at a joint NUI Galway/University of California, Davis PhD training workshop on ‘Plant Biosciences Policies & Regulatory Affairs’.

Naturally, I contacted a number of Irish retail groups for their GM-related views, yet tellingly only received a response from Marks & Spencer Ireland. 

On the question of whether M&S allows suppliers to feed chickens used for its own-brand eggs and poultry with GM soya, a spokesperson responded that it was "no longer stipulat[ing] the use of non-GM feed in our fresh meat supply chain". The group argued that the change was "absolutely necessary because there is now a much reduced supply of non-GM feed available to UK and Irish farmers". Yet as one would expect, M&S was also keen to assure customers that this wouldn’t affect the quality or provenance of its food and that: "Our commitment to only using non-GM food ingredients remains unchanged."

While price and ‘supporting Irish’ are the top concerns facing Irish consumers in the current economic climate, I believe it would be a mistake for Irish retailers to brush consumer concerns and questions about GM (albeit that they may stem from a proportionately small segment of shoppers) under the carpet, rather than confronting the issue head on. After all, the horsemeat scandal is the ultimate precautionary tale of the damage that can arise from retailers not knowing enough about the foods they are selling.

What’s more, developments in recent years such as Teagasc’s trial of blight-resistant potatoes in Carlow, alongside rising food prices, are further raising awareness of the GM question amongst consumers who are eager to educate themselves.

It’s easy to get caught out as being ill-informed when it comes to GM due to the belief that it’s not an ‘everyday’ topic of conversation. This is just what happened to the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg when he was asked a question that any politician must surely dread: "Has he fed his children GM food?" After a rather halting response which clearly revealed he hadn’t prepared his answer in advance, he responded that he had "not knowingly" done so.

His uninspiring performance shows the dangers of not informing yourself on the GM debate and deciding where you stand. And it’s a lesson that extends to Irish retailers too. 

Whether yay, nay or simply in favour of more research, it’s essential to have an answer ready, because one thing’s for certain: The questions are only going to keep on coming.

Gillian Hamill
Acting editor



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