IS GM-FREE A MARKET TREND OR A CONSUMER FAD?

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 25th October 2017

Twenty years ago, I became involved with soybean production in SE Europe. Romania was then a GM-soybean producer; now it is not. The GM-free debate is old hat. And it was a decade ago that I came across the Danube Soya initiative to establish a certification scheme to produce GM-free, European-grown soybeans from the many countries through which the Danube passes.

Working long-term in the region means that one is focused on markets of central Europe and one soon became aware of the importance of sustainable foods issues in these markets. GM-free was one of them. European-grown GM-free soybean was seen by some as the way forwards as consumer demand for GM-free grew; more so when GM-free fed livestock products were demanded. And it was not going to only be a German-Austrian market issue. In 2016, Waitrose’s dedicated pork supplier, Dalehead Foods took its first consignment of European soybeans as the premium retailer began rolling out its plan to replace its [already] responsibly sourced soya beans from non-deforested land in Brazil. The soybeans are certified GM-free by the Danube Soya Producers Association. It is not just German supermarkets taking GM-free supply-chains seriously.

Hence, it was somewhat surprising to read that the CEO of Bord Bia believes that it is necessary to first establish whether non-GM is a market trend or a consumer fad. If Ireland is a dynamic and innovative foods producer, it is a little late in the day to be asking such a question. Market research and marketing is meant to keep one at the forefront and ahead of the game. It is now possible that Ireland will only move after it realizes that it must have GM-free certified products if it wishes to maintain sales to German supermarkets. And making the change will not be done overnight, it will be difficult but the lack of urgency is palpable.

To a degree one can understand the caution. Irish farming and food does seem to have a predilection for ‘science’ when it comes to food production, and GM is seen by some as a desirable part of modern food production. It is reflected in the approach that it is about educating the consumer rather than following consumer demand. It is a part of a wider supply-driven rather than market-led malaise that pervades the Irish farming industry. With GM-free feed one can also understand that an Irish farming industry wide change over to GM-free will have costs and it will have its difficulties; and farmers rightfully ask if they will be paid a GM-free premium.

And therein lies the second part of the problem; the change-over seems to be seen in the context of it being an industry-wide change. Presumably it is looked upon as an activity that will have to be incorporated into and administered through the near national quality-assurance schemes. One can be sure that there are food producers in Ireland who are already producing GM-free products; albeit often using imported ingredients, so it is not exactly new. And as mentioned, Waitrose in the UK is taking measures to improve its sustainability credentials with respect to GM-free. These are, however, individual initiatives, they are not national ones.

Going GM-free is not about national certification, it is about developing specific supply-chains. It is certainly an idea that the Irish tillage sector would embrace. It does, nonetheless, mean that specific GM-free products must be created and supply-chains and routes to market for them developed. It is, frankly, something Ireland, with its largely centralized processing of livestock products, is not very good at. For example, GM-free [and grass-fed beef] is now nothing new and there are many producers of such around the world, from Russia to Romania to Tasmania to the United States, not to mention internally within the European Union. One doubts if they have developed GM-free certification for a consumer fad. When it comes to GM-free, Ireland is already playing catch-up.

Being behind the curve is somewhere that Irish farming, with its small production scale, cannot be. It must be a premium-products producer. It must be part of dynamic and innovative supply-chains that reach premium-paying consumers. The country’s position on GM-free illustrates that it is being found wanting. Irish farming needs to be reaching the top of the market and to do so it needs routes to market that are flexible rather than centralized and industrialized. GM-free is more than about supplying premium, GM-free products, it is about starting the processing of developing a capacity to supply the 80%-plus market position as opposed to the premiumized-commodity markets.

Going GM-free is about much more than GM-free, it is about being willing to make the serious and often relatively small changes needed to develop the country’s routes to markets. It is about linking its farmers to premium paying consumer and ensuring that its farmers benefit. It is a fair bet that continued centralization of processing and accreditation will destroy Irish farming as we know it.

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