Whatever happened to ‘bans’ on GM produce in British supermarkets?

It’s all about plastic bags these days. EPA

Once upon a time, UK retailers welcomed genetically modified (GM) foods. In the late 1990s, Sainsbury’s and Safeway (since purchased by Morrisons) both offered GM tomato purée, which so far as I recall was the first such product made available in the UK. GM and non-GM cans of purée stood side by side on their shelves, the former some 18% cheaper per unit weight. The cans were conspicuously labelled and pamphlets explaining what GM was all about were to hand nearby. But when the stock ran out and it was time to re-order, the anti-GM food balloon had gone up and the product was discontinued.

The late 1990s and early 2000s in Britain was a period of intense back-and forth argument about GM. In 1999 Marks & Spencer announced that it was removing all GM foods from its shelves. (In a House of Lords inquiry at that time, M&S said their customers demanded it. When asked by their lordships how many customers that meant, it turned out to have been rather a small percentage. But those who positively wanted GM were, it seems, even fewer in number).

Sainsbury’s, then the second-largest chain in the UK after Tesco, responded only weeks later by saying it would guarantee that all of its own-brand products were GM-free. All the other retailers followed suit: the UK’s retail industry was to be GM-free – or was it?

In fact some GM products, though not many, were always to be found. Until 2004, when GM labelling became mandatory under EU regulations, it was difficult to identify them. With a label prescribed by law it obviously became easier, and every now and again, a variety of minor products turned up in this or that supermarket chain but did not last very long.

Yet one product which was always on sale, unlabelled before 2004 but properly indicating its GM source thereafter, was soya cooking oil. It can still be found – I spotted it in one of my local Sainsbury’s stores just a few weeks ago. The distributors told me some years ago that the advent of labelling had had no effect on sales. When I questioned a small shopkeeper selling the product, he had no idea that what he was selling was GM (“What’s that?”). Nor, it seems, had his customers.

Feed fad

Then there is the question of GM fodder for animals. Around the time of their own-brand GM-free commitments, retailers said that they would not sell any products from pigs or poultry that had been exposed to GM feeds.

This ban became a distinct red line that remained in place for a decade or so. Until, that is, when Asda became the first of the leading UK supermarkets to abandon its commitment to eggs and poultry fed with GM in 2010. This greatly upset anti-GM campaigning groups, who demanded that Asda and other supermarkets “respond to public opinion” (as the anti-GM brigade saw it) by pledging to keep GM out of the nation’s meat and dairy.

They don’t make protests like they used to in 2005. Michael Stephens/PA

But by then public opinion on the issue had become almost completely mute so far as I could see. So in 2012, Morrison’s did the same: in neither case, as far as I am aware, was there any perceptible consumer reaction. By 2013, all the remaining UK supermarket chains, except Waitrose, had followed suit: GM-feed for pigs and poultry was no longer to be excluded. One or two newspapers noted this at the time but, once more, there appears to have been no noticeable consumer rejection of products from animals fed GM.

Where we go from here

And that is (almost) it. In 2014 it was reported that, while Marks & Spencer still doesn’t use GM ingredients in its own-label products, it sold products from other brands which did contain GM soya or corn – these included teriyaki, ginger and hibachi sauces from the US brand TonTon and three flavours of Moravian Cookie. I checked at the time and found all of them were indeed on sale. Apart from own-brand, of course, GM ingredients can be found across the board in food products and should indeed be labelled as such.

That just leaves cotton – in clothing not in food. Some people have estimated that more than half the world’s cotton is GM, so this is likely to be the case with products on sale in the UK. There is no obligation to label GM cotton so one cannot be sure, but nobody seems to ask and few seem to care. Every now and again, up pops an ad for some cotton product or other which is said to be made with organic cotton (and so ipso facto non-GM) but such examples are rare.

Spot the difference. Eyes Wide

Though a few stalwarts keep up their anti-GM rhetoric, public interest in this subject has largely waned in my view. UK government policy is now openly pro-GM. The devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales take a different view (as does much of Europe), but England has 87% of the UK’s total population.

Though one can never be quite sure, it does begin to look as though the GM issue will fade away in the fullness of time, in England at least, even if it takes a while. I suspect GM food and crops will become commonplace and the protesting community will veer off in another direction, chasing new demons.

Postscript:

Having read this article, a colleague told me that he had in May 2015 undertaken a web search for GM-labelled products on sale in UK supermarkets. His list has been rechecked and updated to find that the five major UK supermarket chains are currently describing on their websites about 60 products labelled as containing GM-ingredients. Nine of them are pet foods manufactured in the UK. All the others are human food products apparently imported from North America or Israel. Several are to be found on the websites of more than one supermarket chain.

For more coverage of the debate around GM crops, click here.

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