Land of the GM-free?

Land of the GM-Free?
Executive summary

Despite the fact that 87 per cent of Americans believe that their food should carry a label telling them whether Genetically Modified (GM) products have been used in it or not, almost none do. As a result GM food has been sold widely and for many years in the USA – without consumers being aware of what they are buying. The powerful pro-GM lobby in the USA has used this as evidence that the public accept, or are at least neutral, on the issue of GM food.  But given a choice, over 50 per cent of Americans say they would not eat GM.
The GM industry has managed to keep US consumers in the dark about the food they are eating for more than a decade, through lobbying the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and state governments to ensure that foods do not legally have to be labelled as GM. But some major new developments in the US market suggest that the tide may finally be turning against the GM lobby. This briefing is not intended to be comprehensive, but it highlights some significant developments that are being ignored in the current UK debate about GM.
In 1994 Monsanto produced a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) that is injected into dairy cows to increase the yield of milk. This GM hormone has faced criticism internationally since its launch on the grounds of both human health risks and animal welfare concerns. While the EU and Canada rejected it, it was deemed safe by the US Food and Drug Administration and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and has been used widely in the US dairy industry, without any labelling of the milk as ‘GM-produced’. Monsanto worked very hard to ensure that consumers have no way to make a choice – getting some US states to ban dairies from selling their milk with ‘no artificial growth hormone’ labels. But increasing consumer awareness of rBGH in the US has caused sales of the milk to plummet. Between 2002 and 2007 use of the hormone fell by 23% and the proportion of US cows being injected with rBGH fell from 25% to below 17%.
Understanding their customers wishes, many major retailers, processors and producers have recently moved to ban rBGH from their products, with Walmart, Safeway, Starbucks, Kraft and many more ensuring that their customers can buy GMO free dairy products for themselves and their families. Opposition to the use of this hormone has grown so much that Monsanto announced last month that they would be selling off the failing product.
As well as this growing consumer rejection of GM food in America, GM companies have had to face opposition by US farmers and regulatory authorities to a series of new GM products. Both GM rice and GM wheat faced such strong opposition from farmers that they never made it out of field trials, and have never been grown commercially in the USA. Hardly any GM sweet corn1 for human consumption is grown either (as opposed to maize grown for animal feed), for the simple reason that it tastes so bad that consumers won’t buy it.
Attempts to launch GM alfalfa, America’s fourth most widely grown crop, have also fallen flat. Farmers took legal action against the release of the crop and won. In 2007 the USDA was ordered to withdraw its approval of the GM alfalfa, a ban was placed on all planting of the crop and the sale of GM alfalfa seeds has now been prohibited throughout the USA. There is also evidence that US plant breeders are rejecting GM technology in favour of more reliable and effective methods such as marker assisted selection. Despite soya being one of the most widely grown GM crops, the newest high‑yielding soya strains are non-GM.
For the first time in the USA, a major labelling initiative is underway that will finally provide consumers with the option of choosing a wide range of non-GM foods. The biggest companies in the natural and organic industry have united to develop a non-GMO label scheme that offers consumers the choice they clearly wish for, backed up by a robust verification system to ensure that it is a claim they can trust. This new ‘Non-GMO Project’ will be launched next year. It is led by a group of companies with combined annual sales of at least $12 billion – equivalent to almost 10% of the entire UK food and drink industry. Around four hundred companies across the US and Canada have pledged their support, and at the outset around 28,000 different products are likely to be covered by the scheme.
With US consumers, farmers and politicians losing their enthusiasm for GM crops, it is not surprising that the GM industry has scaled up its efforts to find a new market in the EU. But in Europe, over 175 regions and over 4,500 municipalities and local areas have declared themselves GMO-free. Major countries that once supported GM, like France and Germany, no longer do so, and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all committed to GM-free policies. It is just the strongly pro-GM English Government that looks increasingly out of touch with what consumers really want.

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