This post first appeared online at on the 30th August 2017

The idea of a GM-free Ireland is rising the agenda. To date, the debate has been about using GM technology on farm but, increasingly, it is being driven by consumer demand for GM-free foods. It is now about some supermarkets in the EU wanting products that are from entirely GM-free supply chains that, with animal products, contain no GM animal feeds. With its grass-fed focus, is this an opportunity for the Irish farming and food sectors?

Various questions over going GM-free immediately spring to mind.

How much GM feed is imported into Ireland and for what purpose? Can this be replaced so all-Ireland can be GM-free? If not, can GM feed be segregated so certain farming sectors can operate with GM-free status? Or is it best to focus on producing GM-free products and to farm to create them? Will GM-free come at a cost to the farmer and will that cost be compensated for by an enhanced farm-gate price? Will the farmer receive a further reward for the hassle of being certified GM-free? And critically, does Ireland have the post-farm-gate supply-chain structures to differentiate GM-free product streams and, hence, operate to transfer any premium from the consumer through to the farmer? Or will being GM-free only benefit those beyond the farm gate?

There are those who will argue that forsaking GM technology will inhibit farmers to produce more and to compete with those who have access to the technology, but that is another debate. This one is about consumer demand and deciding if it is viable for Irish farmers to meet that demand.

Although others within the supply-chain may see ‘GM-free’ as a positive attribute to have when it comes to selling their products, the costs of being GM-free will mainly fall on the farmer. They need to be compensated and, preferably, rewarded by the market for being GM-free. If Ireland is become a GM-free food producer, its farmers must see the benefits from being so.

Ireland is a major importer of cereals and oilseed cakes for animal feeds.

In 2016 (all data is from the CSO) Ireland imported 968,000 tonnes of grain maize of which 350,000 tonnes maybe GM-maize from North America. After considering other cereal imports and home production, Ireland is probably about two-thirds self-sufficient in cereals for animal feed.

In contrast, the Irish livestock industry is highly dependent on imported protein feeds. In 2016 close to 800,000 tonnes of oilseed cakes was imported, a reduction of 20% on 2015. The total volume and oilseed cake mix varies year-on-year, although soybean meal volume is relatively constant. Nearly 450,000 tonnes of soybean meal were imported in 2016 up from 375,000 five years earlier. It is sourced from the Americas where nearly all soya is GM. Of the three major growers, only Brazil has any significant production area of GM-free soybeans. The USA and Argentina are the other two.

In addition to soybean meal, about 225,000 tonnes of rapeseed and sunflower seed cake [EU sourced and non-GM] and 125,000 tonnes of palm kernel cake were imported in 2016. One should also note that there is a sustainable-sourcing issue around palm kernel cake, imports of which have often been nearer 200,000 tonnes per year.

In addition, nearly 700,000 tonnes of prepared animal feeds were imported, a significant proportion of which originated in the USA. Do they have a GM-free provenance? There were also nearly 460,000 tonnes of brewers’ grains and 150,000 tonnes of sugar-beet pulp imported. As some originates in the USA, its origins need checking.  Finally, about 600,000 tonnes of other food industry by-products were also imported in 2016 with Argentina being a major supplier.

In total, livestock feed imports in 2016 were about 3.7 million tonnes or over 60% of a total feed use of approximately six million tonnes.

From a GM-free animal-feeds sourcing perspective, the biggest issue is GM soybean meal and the feasibility of substituting it with other non-GM protein meals. And there are also other imports of food-industry by-products from the Americas that would require verifying as GM-free.

As one investigates the concept of a GM-free Ireland further, it is clearly not as straight forward as substituting imported GM soybean meal with other oilseed meals.

What is the realistic way forwards for GM-free farming in Ireland?

With Ireland’s emphasis on grass, just how much GM-associated feeds goes into ruminant rations? Or, more specifically, what proportion goes into pigs and poultry and ‘feed-lot’ finished beef? Among the country’s dairy herds, there are also those that use far more meal than their lower-yielding, grass-based counterparts. It is complex and maybe a GM-free Ireland is, at least in the short-term, a bridge too far. At present, more research and investigation needs to be done and a practicable strategy developed from there.

In the short term, it maybe be better to determine how to support the development of GM-free sub-sectors and individual products. The costs need to be assessed and the potential market-derived benefits evaluated. As with the debate over forsaking the use of GM technology, others will argue that there may be environmental and health benefits from being GM-free, but for now, this is about doing a cost-benefit analysis of fulfilling tangible market demand.

The home production of peas and beans has, historically, been low. It has been rising with the current crop-specific support scheme but it will still be well short of what would be needed to provide for cattle and sheep feeds let alone pigs and poultry [about 25% of feed use]. One would, suggest that in the short term, the focus is upon sub-sectors of the ruminant sector where going local and using GM-free proteins produced in Ireland may be achievable. It may, nevertheless, still need the transmission of a significant GM-free price premium from the consumer all the way through to the tillage farmer.

For the beleaguered Irish tillage farmer, being part of a dedicated, higher-value product supply chain is exactly what is needed.  Triggering an expansion of certified-by-someone, GM-free may, nonetheless, need direct government support to facilitate it. If, however, there is consumer demand for GM-free foods, we need to look at the feasibility of meeting that demand from Ireland. It could be a significant opportunity for Irish livestock and tillage farmers. And if it proves to be so, we must ensure that they and not just their supply-chain partners benefit from going GM-free.

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