It’s almost a decade since the last can of genetically modified tomato paste was pulled from UK supermarket shelves. The paste retailed at three quarters of the price of its non-GM substitute and outsold its rival by 150% in Sainsbury’s and Safeway. There was no element of subterfuge in its marketing – the words ‘made from genetically modified tomatoes’ were clearly labelled on the tin.

But it wasn’t long before the media latched on to the ‘Frankenstein Foods’ tag espoused by eco-activists and NGOs. Sales of GM products in the UK fell off a cliff and by February 1999 all the major retailers had proclaimed themselves GM-free.

Ten years on and GM remains the great unmentionable. If the food industry’s silence in the wake of Prince Charles’ anti-GM rant proved anything, it was that very little has changed. Except it has. Food price inflation is running at 10%. Organic food sales have slumped 20% this year. The UK economy is on its backside. So why is GM not back on the UK industry’s agenda?

Globally, GM production is big business. GM plants are commercially employed in 23 countries, 12 of which are developing nations, including India and a number of South American countries. In 2007, the cultivation of genetically modified plants rose by 12 million hectares to reach a total of 114 million hectares, according to the Agro-Biotechnology Agency. The greatest increase was in maize, which added 10 million hectares to its area.

The main GM-food importers are the US and the Far East. But in the UK, manufacturers and retailers continue to shun GM. “Supermarkets don’t want to take the hit,” says Chris Leaver, professor of plant science at Oxford University and a leading proponent of GM. “I don’t think anybody wants to take the lead. Behind the scenes, CEOs want to do it. But as long as they’re still making money, they’ve no reason to take the risk.”

Supermarkets are anxious to avoid a repeat of the 90s media frenzy. “My guess is that they all want to go but none of them want to be the first,” agrees Vivian Moses, professor of nutritional sciences at King’s College London and chairman of lobby group CropGen. “It needs to be a case of them getting their act together and all going at once.”

The line from retailers has always been that consumers have no appetite for GM. This theory will be tested again next month when a Europe-wide study by the EU Framework 6 Programme will reveal current consumer attitudes towards GM. If, as the Soil Association claims, 85% of UK consumers are anti-GM, the supermarkets will be vindicated, but only to a certain degree. The survey dates back to 2002 when the economy was booming and the organic revolution was in full swing. Times have changed. With money scarce, price has once again come to the fore.

“The credit crunch changes things,” says Leaver. “It’s all very well for Prince Charles and the chattering classes to demand more organic, but the majority of people just want cheap food.”

When the GM debate first reared its head in the early 90s, the suspicion was that its goal was to line the pockets of multinationals. The NGOs drummed up resistance and when ‘genes giants’ Monsanto and Syngenta pulled out of Europe in 2003 and 2004, it looked as though they had won. But the science has evolved and new products, including tomatoes and potatoes, now boast benefits such as enhanced nutrition and drought resistance. Experts argue that the parameters of the debate need to change to reflect this.

“Merely bringing the issue to people’s attention doesn’t work because there’s a huge difference between what people say they do and what they actually do,” says Moses. “It all depends how you frame it. If you frame GM as cheaper food, the response might be very different.”

It’s true there have been some noises from the industry on the wider issues associated with GM. In a radio interview last year, Waitrose chief Mark Price said supply constraints meant it was unlikely Waitrose would be able to continue to offer only GM-free own-label goods. The caveat, however, was that the Government must first prove to consumers that GM foods were safe.

In these pages in April, Tate & Lyle chief executive Iain Ferguson wrote: “As a nation, we have to confront the issue of genetic modification by having a fair and scientific debate on an issue typically clouded by suspicion and lack of trust. The economic climate, combined with rising food prices and concern over long-term availability of commodities, may help create conditions for such a debate.”

There’s plenty to debate. On the one hand, retailers don’t want to raise a controversial issue with customers and farmers remain scared of cross-contamination. On the other, manufacturers are pushing to integrate production world wide for greater efficiencies and farmers want to provide for a world market. Too often it remains a case of do as I say not as I do.

Sainsbury’s, once trailblazers in the GM field, have retreated. “We are aware some customers have concerns about GM food, so Sainsbury’s does not permit the use of GM crops, ingredients, additives or derivatives from GM crops in Sainsbury’s-brand food,” shouts a statement. Asda toes a similar line. “There is no usage in human food ingredients. Asda is led by the views of our customers,” says the retailer owned by US giant Wal-Mart, which itself sells GM products.

Manufacturers too remain sceptical. “As a consumer-led business, McCain has no plans to use GM ingredients in our products,” says one of the country’s largest potato processors. This, despite the Government approving trials of GM potatoes earlier this year on the proviso they would not be used for food or animal feed.

The Government, for its part, continues to tread carefully around the issue. Comments from environment minister Phil Woolas that “a rethink is on the cards” may have offered a chink of light to the pro-GM lobby, but this is a debate where soundbites are two-a-penny. “The Government’s position will continue to be guided by the science,” is the offical Defra line.
GM soybeans: a vital cash export for argentina
Along with Canada and the United States, Argentina was one of the first to adopt GM technology in 1997, with little public outcry. As demand for soya soared, so did production. In 2006, the country produced 20% of the world’s GM soybeans, with GM accounting for 98% of Argentina’s own soybean output. For a country with such a turbulent economic history, Argentina’s soya provides a vital cash export, supplying cattle feed to Europe and the Far East. But the transition to GM has not been without its controversies. In 2004, New Scientist magazine reported farmers were using more than twice as much herbicide as for conventional soya, due to unforseen problems with herbicide-resistant weeds. A number of farmers were found guilty of causing considerable harm to both traditional crops and human health by carelessly drenching the land with a mixture of powerful herbicides. Experts are warning that the significant uplift in GM plantings could result in a number of environmental problems, not least the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds and destruction of the soil’s natural micro-organisms. Because of the proliferation of commercially grown GM soya, production of many Argentine staples, including milk, rice, maize, potatoes and lentils has, in contrast, fallen sharply.

With an election looming and Labour at a low ebb, GM may be too emotive a debate to reignite. So the issue meanders along with no prospect of real progress. The retailers demand the Government leads, Westminster defers to science, the scientists claim they have evidence, the NGOs disagree.

If there is to be a breakthrough, it may be through necessity rather than choice. In a roundabout way, GM is already on our shelves. Despite retailers’ anti-GM rhetoric, nearly all dairy products, pork and red meat as well as many frozen and processed meat and dairy products sold in the UK are produced from animals fed on GM crops, according to the Soil Association. Vegetarian rennet in cheese is also a GM product.

These are the truths supermarkets are keen to play down, instead emphasising that own-brand ranges are exclusively non-GM. “I’m sure the majority of consumers are not aware and don’t care that animals are fed on GM feeds,” says Moses. “People don’t read the small print.”

The issue that could kickstart a re-evaluation of GM, however, is poultry. Retailers are still demanding suppliers source 100% GM-free soya for animal feed, but its supply is coming under increasing pressure as more land in the US and South Africa is devoted to higher-yield GM soya. In the worst-case scenario, GM-free soybean prices could rise by as much as 600% within two years, according to the European Commission Directorate, consigning the £3 chicken to history and potentially devastating the EU livestock sector. The issue is of sufficient concern for senior UK Government officials to ask Defra and the Food Standards Agency to analyse the possible repercussions.

Yet the EU continues to be bogged down by bureaucracy. The National Farmers’ Union of Scotland has claimed the EU’s process for authorising the use of new GM varieties of feed is paralysed. It takes on average two and a half years for a new variety to be approved, but can take longer once the numerous NGOs have conducted their own assessments. All the while, EU producers must pay premium prices to compensate feed growers for the cost of not growing GM.

These are just some of the issues that will have to be resolved if the UK is to reconsider GM. Which, with food prices soaring, it may have to. “We have to double the amount of food we’re producing,” says Leaver. “GM on its own is not the answer but it can be part of the solution.” What price then a tin of GM tomato paste?
There is no GM usage in human food ingredients. Asda is led by the views of our customers Asda We’re guided by our consumers and they have no appetite for GM ingredients, so we don’t use them Kellogg’s No Waitrose food is genetically modified and we currently have no plans to change this Waitrose
In the current context of increasing food and fuel prices, there are real benefits to be had in reducing inputs, such as fertilisers and crop sprays, and increasing yields by using GM technology to improve crops National Farmers’ Union We believe that modern biotechnology, including GM, offers enormous potential to improve the quality and quantity of the food supply, but the impact of this technology must be objectively assessed through scientific investigation Food and Drink Federation