GM... It's no chicken feed
‘Why don’t producers who feed their animals GM soy or maize have to say so on the label’ came the question from the back. Janet Jones raises grass fed organic cattle in Cornwall and the information we got during the ‘GM threat’ workshop at the Organic Producers’ Conference left her as exasperated as the rest of the audience. GMO labelling turns out to be a complicated issue with the rules being made in Brussels. A ‘GM-free’ label however is a different matter and one that really can make a difference. In Germany it does so for consumers and approximately 240 million chicken: Wiesenhof, Germany’s largest chicken producer has recently announced that from 2015 their birds will have a GM free diet.
‘The company took this step because retailers demand GM free chicken’, says Alexander Hissting from VLOG, an organisation that campaigns for the ‘GM free’ food label in Germany. Over the past 15 years consumers have consistently said that they don’t want GM food. The latest survey done on behalf of Greenpeace in April 2014 said 79% of Germans wanted laying hens and chicken to have non-GM feed, 93% were in favour of a ‘GM free’ label on eggs and poultry and 80% were willing to pay a little extra if necessary. In Germany they probably won’t even have to, says Alexander Hissting. Sourcing non GM feed will be more expensive, but being able to market it with the ‘GM free’ label will improve the supermarkets’ image and give them a competitive edge. Wiesenhof supplies chicken not just under its own brand, it also supplies the supermarket own brand chicken of four big German retailers: EDEKA, REWE and – wait for it – Lidl and Aldi. 4,5 million chicken a week.
Wiesenhof is not just Germany’s largest chicken producer, it is also a vertically integrated company with its own feed processing facilities. Initially the company claimed that it was impossible to source enough GM free soy, 150,000 tons are needed annually. But campaigners argued that not only was Brazil still producing conventionally grown soy, but so were European countries like Hungary and Bulgaria. ‘To say we can’t get the feed just isn’t true’, says Stephanie Töwe from Greenpeace and the demand will encourage producers to grow non-GM feed which would have a huge beneficial impact. Farmers growing GM crops are increasingly battling with what’s known as ‘super weeds’ which have developed herbicide resistance. To get rid of them farmers spray more often and combine different herbicides. In particular where the spraying is done by plane those living nearby are directly exposed to these herbicides with often dramatic consequences for their health. ‘Stories of a wounded land’ shows the effects in Argentina – be warned, the images are horrific:
Could UK supermarkets also sell ‘GM free’ labelled food? As a food producer, could you label your product or produce if it was GM free? The answer is yes. Unlike some other European countries, France, Germany and Austria for instance, the UK has no ‘GM free’ labelling law. ‘You can describe a product as ‘Non GM’ or ‘GM free’ as long as it is not misleading and can be substantiated if challenged’, says Jerry Houseago from Cert ID, a certification agency. Organic certification of course would be proof of being ‘GM free’ too.
After the Wiesenhof success Greenpeace Germany is now working on the number two in the chicken industry to switch to non GM feed as well. ‘And we’re campaigning for McDonalds to source non-GM chicken’, says Stephanie Töwe. And Alexander Hissting says because of consumer demand several leading supermarket chains in Germany aim to eventually source all meat products as well as eggs and dairy from GM free sources. Maybe it’s time for British consumers to demand GM free food and for producers to let us know via a label if they use GM free feed. It can be done and it certainly would be worth it.
In the picture: no Wiesenhof chicken, but some organic free ranging colleagues in Darjeeling, India