Something’s Cooking! Maybe GM Food is essential to feed the world?

Something’s Cooking! Maybe GM Food is essential to feed the world?

Despite widespread popular concern about the health and environmental risks posed by GM produce, scientists are increasingly convinced that they are essential to global food supply. And when the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) engages the ideologically distant interests of the cattle industry, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to discuss global food production, it’s clear something is cooking.

By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent The Telegraph

 7:13AM GMT 24 Jan 2011

Despite widespread popular concern about the health and environmental risks posed by GM produce, scientists are increasingly convinced that they are essential to global food supply. The Food and Farming report was commissioned by the Department of Business to look at ways in which the world can feed itself over the next 40 years.

It is feared that the growth of the world population to as many as nine billion people, coupled with climate change, will cause food shortages and starvation.

Sir John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientific adviser who is leading the team behind the report, said new technologies such as GM will have to be used to feed the population.

Possible examples of genetic modification include crops that can grow in salty water or drought conditions.

“There will be no silver bullet, but it is very hard to see how it would be remotely sensible to justify not using new technologies such as GM,” he said yesterday.

“Just look at the problems that the world faces: water shortages and salination of existing water supplies for example. GM crops should be able to deal with that.” In the 1990s there was an outcry against “Frankenstein foods” that led most supermarkets to ban GM ingredients in their own brand foods, although it is available in branded foods in Britain, mostly in cooking oils.

Because most farm animals in this country are fed GM soy, no supermarket can guarantee that dairy or meat is not from animals fed GM.

Sir John said it was no longer acceptable to reject GM foods merely on the grounds of “scaremongering”, particularly as food prices rocket and the world warms.

Britain does not grow any GM crops commercially but could grow GM potatoes and sugar beet within five years if seeds are licensed.

Within 10 years the country could be growing GM wheat that needs less fertiliser or is drought, or flood-resistant.

Dr Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, pointed out that more than 300 million acres of GM crops are planted in the world every day.

He claimed that in the last 12 years two trillion meals have been eaten containing GM ingredients.

“The majority of people recognise that crying wolf on this subject without one substantiated health issue is not going to work anymore,” he said.

However, Sandra Bell, a food campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said it was too early to tell whether there were any negative health effects from eating GM.

She also pointed to the environmental costs, such as increased use of pesticides and the health effects connected to that.

“Thirty years of research and development into GM has not delivered the solutions we need in terms of feeding people who are hungry and solving the problems of malnutrition,” she added


Sydney Morning Herald (5 February 2011):

Food manufacturers, retailers and WWF are joining forces to address how to feed the world’s population, writes Paul Myers.

WHEN the World Wildlife Fund engages the ideologically distant interests of the cattle industry, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to discuss global food production, it’s clear something is cooking.

It is a subtle, yet vital, shift in the way food producers, manufacturers, retailers and groups outside the traditional food fence, such as WWF, are addressing a new paradigm in feeding the world’s rapidly increasing population: how food is produced, not just how much.

In practice the two issues are inseparable. The difference is that while feeding a projected 9 billion people by 2050 from less farmland has long concerned governments, and global aid and food bodies, doing so in a way that satisfies escalating environmental and animal welfare scrutiny, state and national regulations and changing consumer attitudes is considerably more complex.

Behind the farm gate it means that practices in the largest and most advanced agricultural nations, including Australia, will be in the spotlight as the new food production ground rules take shape.

Enter WWF as the unexpected and uninvited powerbroker in this high-stakes scenario. The world’s largest independent conservation organisation is targeting 100 key companies that globally trade commodities including beef, sugar, cotton, palm oil, soybeans and coffee to participate in ”round table” forums about how extra food can be produced with fewer, but more precise, inputs.

Key targets are farmlands with sensitive ecosystems, such as Great Barrier Reef catchments in north Queensland. Along the way, whole industries – including beef and sugar in Australia – are being swept up in the process.

WWF’s Australian program leader for water, Nick Heath, says three times more food and fibre will be needed in the next 40 years than is produced now. ”The answer lies in precision agriculture – more crop per drop.”

And Rob Cairns, the organisation’s Australian program manager for sustainable agriculture, who has a background in the cotton and sugar industries, assures the food chain that WWF is ”just one player” in the quest for a lower food environmental footprint, ”not the policeman”.

”It’s about sustaining food production without impacting on eco-systems,” he says. ”At the moment, it’s confusing for consumers. By default, organics have been seen as the answer. But organics can’t clothe and feed the world, so we have to work with those who can make a difference. And it has to involve a number of commodities.”

Beef is at the top of that list.

To the displeasure of some traditionalists, a meeting in Denver, Colorado, last November laid the foundations of what could be the most unlikely food alliance ever: cattlemen from Australia, North America and Argentina; the world’s largest beef purchaser, McDonald’s; the largest retailer, Wal-Mart; multinational food production and marketing group Cargill; the animal health conglomerate, Intervet/Schering-Plough, and WWF.

WWF called the get-together to discuss ”sustainable beef production”. In April it will participate with the National Farmers’ Federation, Meat & Livestock Australia and other groups in a sustainable food summit in Melbourne to canvass environmental and food security issues that could be part of the national food plan being developed by the federal government.

Attendees at the Denver meeting came away encouraged and keen to keep talking.

Neither the executive director of the federation’s Cattle Council, David Inall, nor the council’s president, Greg Brown, a north Queensland cattleman who was also in Denver, fear WWF has an agenda to limit beef production. ”They were looking for some comfort that beef producers have an understanding of environmental issues,” Inall says.

In this regard, the Australian cattle industry may be ahead of the game. Meat & Livestock Australia is developing a voluntary environmental module that will enable beef producers to demonstrate the ”environmental responsible nature” of their production systems.

But it remains unclear whether farmers’ ability to merely demonstrate environmental responsibility, rather than prove it, will be enough.

To this end, a group of cattle producers in Gippsland, Victoria, is marketing beef sourced from properties with independently audited environmental management systems that comply with the international ISO 14001 standard. Their ”enviromeat beef”, sourced from 15 suppliers, is thought to be the first labelled food product backed by an environmental management system in Australia.

One of three shareholders in the venture, a former Cattle Council president, Bill Bray, says cattle producers have to ”get on the front foot and show consumers we are a big part of the solution, not the problem”. ”Cattle producers manage 45 per cent of land in Australia. Farmers everywhere are trying to understand [the relationship between] their production systems and the environment.”

At the other end of the scale, McDonald’s – the world’s largest purchaser of Australian beef (64,300 tonnes in 2010, 60 per cent of which was exported) and largest consumer of Coca-Cola – is working with WWF internationally and locally in programs involving beef and sugar.

Rob Cairns says engaging ”big players” such as McDonald’s is the most effective way to achieve positive food production outcomes. Participating companies include Kraft, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Cargill, Dole (pineapples), Wal-Mart and others outside the food chain such as IBM, IKEA, Hewlett-Packard and Toyota.

Many in the beef industry speculate the WWF-McDonald’s partnership will soon result in an ”enviro burger” made from beef grown on properties with environmental accreditation. The restaurant chain’s head of sustainable supply chain and social accountability in Asia-Pacific, Brian Kramer, who was in Denver, says it is ”too early to talk such specifics”. But the Cattle Council’s Greg Brown believes the chain’s exclusive use of Rainforest Alliance coffee and its successful McAngus promotion featuring Angus beef point to the future direction.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola is participating independently with WWF and Reef Catchments, a natural resource management group in the Mackay-Whitsunday region of north Queensland, in a project designed to improve water quality and reduce sediment from sugar-cane farms on the Great Barrier Reef. Now in its second phase, Project Catalyst involves 50 canegrowers who have committed to farming practices, including precision application of chemicals using satellite technology and monitoring water quality.

Coca-Cola South Pacific’s public affairs and communications manager, Michelle Allen, says the initial success of the project is so promising that it may be expanded to other sugar-growing countries.

Either way, the Queensland government’s 2009 Great Barrier Reef Protection Amendment Act 2009 has already changed farming practices. A key component of the legislation is a limit on chemicals that can be applied by farmers with more than 70 hectares of sugar cane in the Whitsunday wet tropics and by cattle producers with more than 2000 hectares in the Burdekin dry tropics.

The Premier, Anna Bligh, said that within four years of its introduction the act would cut by half the 32,000 tonnes of fertiliser nutrients previously flowing on to the reef each year from mainland water catchments.

So far, most of the environmental food action is on the ground. At the retail level in Australia, eco-labelling is virtually non-existent.

In Britain, Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s supermarkets sell Rainforest Alliance-branded bananas and coffee, which is also served on airlines and in McDonald’s McCafe and Gloria Jean’s Coffees outlets.

The British government’s Carbon Trust environmental watchdog has developed a label that is applied to 120 products in Tesco supermarkets. It gives advice about how to reduce the product’s carbon footprint when cooked, used or disposed, and appears on foods including vegetables, milk and orange juice. The program has now been extended to Australia through Planet Ark.

A labelling scheme that began in Japan in 2009 provides a detailed breakdown of the carbon footprint of numerous foods and drinks. In the United States, Wal-Mart, which sells more than 20 per cent of all US groceries, is developing an eco-labelling program that will give a green rating to all items sold in its 7500 stores worldwide.

Australian supermarket chains are wary about venturing down this path. A spokesman for Coles, Jim Cooper, says eco-labelling is an emerging trend but ”isn’t the number one issue for our customers”.

Many food experts believe that, eventually, on-farm environmental certification may be essential for food products to gain market access and shelf space in supermarkets.

If and when enviro food labelling reaches Australia, a ”how green is my trolley?” assessment of food purchases may be possible at the checkout. This may be several years away, but the way the food landscape is changing, don’t count it out


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