During May a group of thirteen faculty and staff from Iowa State University spent ten days in Europe (London and Brussels) studying the issues of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and food safety. The group was lead by Eric Hoiberg, Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture. The purpose of the trip was to find out the current thinking of the Europeans on these two issues and the impact they might have on US agriculture.
The concerns of the public about genetically modified organisms (GMO) are very real and will continue to be. The public in Europe has little faith in the ability of the government to regulate and enforce food and health issues. Politics always plays a role in the enforcement of food safety issues. Consumers want a choice and are demanding it. One speaker stated that the GMO issue was so significant that it could bring down a government.
Effect on the food supply chain
The GMO controversy has the potential to increase profits for many groups in the food chain. The people who handle the grains, the media, environmental groups, processors, retailers, and even the ag research institutes and testing labs will benefit from the ongoing controversy.
In the UK there is a constant daily highlighting of issues surrounding GMOs. The rest of the EU doesn't appear to have as high an awareness as does the UK. However, this may change as France continues to have problems with BSE and concerns about the government underreporting the number of cases.
Meeting with Cargill
The meeting with Cargill pointed out many of the past problems. BSE was possibly linked to human health. The toxin in the feed showed that the government and the feed industry also lacked control over the feed inputs. No one seemed to have a plan or protocol in place to prevent or deal with these major problems. The EU set up a food safety committee in April of 2000. So has the UK.
Three points that I came
away from Cargill with are:
o If people will pay for identity preserved ingredients Cargill will provide them,
o When the food system went global, people failed to recognize the need for a review system with greater regulation power, and
o Things need to be labeled so consumers can decide whether to buy it or leave it.
Another point that Cargill made was that there are significant economies of scale in sourcing and processing soybeans. Having a soybean processing plant at a major port allows them to buy soybeans from any continent in the world at highly competitive prices. This allows them to take advantage of harvest lows around the globe.
European Food Safety Authority
The European Food Safety Authority is just in its infancy and has a long way to go. I doubt that it has enough teeth to bring about the sweeping changes and increased consumer faith that it hopes to create. Adding more countries to the EU will choke it even more. The EU Commission didn't transfer any regulatory power to the Authority. Perhaps the requirement that the Agency is required to be open and public will instill more faith by the public in this agency. The chairman and all board members are political appointments. I predict that the agency will have little success in the short run.
Risk to brand names
Processors are concerned that they can't risk their brand or trademark being discredited in the retail market by being labeled as containing any GMO. This was reinforced at Interbrew. The company didn't have a problem with the science behind the GMO technology. They just didn't want a competing brewery to advertise that Interbrew had used any GMO products in the manufacturing of any of their 300 different kinds of beer. Again, this reinforces the tremendous power of the advertising and retail industry.
This has some significant implications for USA soybean farmers. It was implied that rape seed (canola) oil could easily be used to replace the soybean oil in most processing applications. It has been the simplest way to deal with the GMO issue.
Another new issue was the Precautionary Principle. This requires a much higher level of guarantee that a product is safe. Some would argue that in these newer areas of science one could never meet this standard. Certainly, this requires much more research and has the potential to prevent new technology from ever coming to the market place.
Labeling will be a very difficult area for the food system to come to grips with. If there is no label, then the consumer can't make a choice. This will not be an acceptable solution! Labels can stigmatize a product. Labels may imply a difference in products when there may not really be a difference. Labels may imply that one ingredient is better than another is.
There was a certain amount of willingness on the part of some processors to overlook the GMO issues when they were sourcing inputs. If soybeans or soy products came from Brazil it was assumed that they were GMO free. The processors had a "don't look, don't ask, don't tell" sort of approach. This will probably be short lived. The processors and suppliers will face increased legislation that will require testing and auditing. The definition of GMO will be more clearly defined. The whole area of feed ingredients will also come under increased scrutiny.
Greenpeace, by itself, will not set back biotech. However, several other respected environmental and agricultural groups are linking with Greenpeace on this issue. Together with the media and substantial monetary contributions, Greenpeace will be able to continue to push their agenda for a significant period. I find their view of the impact on vitamin enriched rice on starving and mal-nourished children interesting. The idea is that keeping them from starving or going blind will not solve their economic or social problems, so that is reason enough to block the use of the technology.
The US Embassy staff indicated that Europe faces the loss of its livestock industry to offshore production if their costs continue to increase. Brazil is expected to be an increasing competitor in the livestock sector. Activists will continue to play an essential role in shaping public opinion. The US is viewed as a residual supplier of grains. Monsanto followed all of the legal rules in getting approval, but the timing was poor. Europe doesn't see a need for the increased production that these new products may bring.
As one individual said, this is a battle that we cannot win, but a war that we must not lose.