GM or not GM? It’s a question that polarises opinion and, when it comes to poultry feed, until last week that included UK grocery retailers. However, in the space of a few hours, all that changed, as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and The Co-operative Group announced they would allow the use of GM feed by their poultry and egg farmers.

They followed the lead of Asda and Morrisons, who altered their GM feed positions in 2010 and 2012 respectively, leaving Waitrose as the only major retailer to maintain its non-GM stance on poultry feed. But what was the reason for the seemingly orchestrated manoeuvre? How valid are the changes in policy? And more importantly, is this a tipping point for the acceptance of GM?

To outsiders the timing of the announcements last week seemed like a co-ordinated move to minimise the negative publicity the retailers knew their decision would attract. But one well-placed industry insider claims the trigger for the policy switch wasn’t entirely planned. “They were all expecting a big shipment of non-GM soya last week, but the shippers knew 60 days ago that they would default on it and they only broke the news to the buyers early last week,” says the source.

Supply of non-GM soya had already been running at an all-time low this year, according to an international agricultural expert, who claims “poultry suppliers were notified a couple of months ago that they could no longer guarantee the supply of non-GM soya”.

This, at least, was the line the retailers peddled when they announced their policy switch. However, it was refuted by the Brazilian association of non-genetically modified grain producers, Abrange, earlier this week. In a statement it claimed that this year Brazil has enjoyed a record soybean harvest of more than 82 million tonnes - enough to meet Europe’s soya demand. The percentage of non-GM soya is currently estimated to comprise 25% of the crop.

Non-GM sourcing ‘not a problem’

And, as the Soil Association pointed out in a statement last week, supermarkets in countries like France and Germany are not having a problem sourcing non-GM feed. Nor indeed is Waitrose the only major UK grocery retailer still maintaining a non-GM stance on poultry feed - one it intends to continue, according to a company spokesman. “We’ve bought forward secure supplies of non-GM feed, which is great for us,” says the spokesman. “We’re currently researching how we can maintain supply of non-GM soya for the quantities we need without paying unrealistic premiums.”

The contradictory information issued about the availability of non-GM feed has led some to speculate that there was a different motive behind the retailers’ switch.

“There is a significant price differential between non-GM and GM soya, but none of the supermarkets have said they are doing this for cost reasons,” says a farming industry source. “In the wake of the horsemeat scandal I think it would be difficult for them to announce publicly they are doing something to their meat or poultry supply chain simply to reduce costs.”

Regardless of the actual reasons behind the policy shift, the bigger unanswered question is whether or not this latest move marks a tipping point for the acceptance of GM. As a recent poll for The Grocer shows, the retailers have a lot of work to do to win customers over. More than 80% of people polled were either unsure or negative in their attitude to the use of GM technology in food.

Indeed Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association believes the fact Waitrose continues to hold out could eventually tip the balance back in favour of non-GM feed. “It’s the most significant moment in the campaign against GM since 1999, when at one point 70% of our food was GM and then a few months later none of it was. That was a tipping point and this is a similar one because they haven’t managed the united front.”