For over a decade, the public has rejected GM foods. Intuitive concerns had been reinforced by the highly publicised findings of the first Government sponsored animal trials, in which strange lesions were found in the guts of GM-fed rats. To their credit, the supermarkets adopted non-GM policies and, by October 2002, they were using no GM (genetically modified) ingredients in their own-brand products.
Yet, for some years the Soil Association and other organisations have been concerned about the use of GM animal feed. Due to a legal loop-hole, although foods or animal feeds that directly contain GM ingredients must be labelled as ‘GM’, there is no such requirement for meat and dairy foods produced from animals fed on GM crops.
Any use of GM animal feed could thus be kept hidden from consumers. Last year, in noticeably evasive replies to letters from our supporters, the supermarkets admitted that their non-GM policies did not cover animal feed. The Soil Association decided to conduct an in-depth investigation.
Our findings – presented in our report, Silent invasion – the hidden use of GM crops in livestock feed – are deeply concerning. By testing animal feeds and reviewing the industry’s sourcing policies, we have found that high levels of GM animal feed are being used. 73% of the feeds we tested contained some GM soya and 75% were labelled as ‘GM’. Based on our findings, around 60% of the maize and 30% of the soya in the dairy and pig sectors are GM.
What this means is that nearly all non-organic milk, dairy products (such as cheese and yoghurt) and pork products sold in UK shops and restaurants are produced from GM-fed animals. So, most consumers are unwittingly eating foods produced from GM crops every day.
We also reviewed progress on the science of the safety of GM crops, since the early days of the debate when there was little to go on. The Food Standards Agency had been assuring consumers that they would not be exposed to GM material by eating foods from GM-fed animals. However, four studies by different scientific teams have now found that small amounts of GM DNA can be detected in milk and tissues from GM-fed animals.
It also turns out that the first animal feeding trials were not flukes. Very many of the animal trials carried out since then have found deeply worrying effects. These include toxic effects in body organs, allergic reactions, unexplained deaths and stunted growth in the offspring. This raises serious questions about how GM-fed animals can be considered suitable for producing human food.
In the view of the Soil Association, there has been a failure of both the market and the scientific advisory process. The biotechnology industry has managed to persuade many normally clear-minded people, sadly including many scientists, that they should support GM crops if they are ‘pro-science’.
The important fact that the science has actually emerged against GM crops has gone unnoticed. Perhaps it would help to point out that genetic engineering is not a science, it is only a technique. Rejection of GM does not mean a rejection of science.
Until the scientific community come to terms with the research and supports a responsible – and genuinely science-based - approach, the Soil Association strongly recommends that people try to avoid foods produced from GM-fed animals. Among the supermarkets, Marks-and-Spencer is far ahead of the others, with all of their milk and fresh meat produced from non-GM feed. We urge other supermarkets and catering companies to follow their lead and to meanwhile to label any products from GM-fed animals so that at least people can choose.