GM Free Cymru

Tesco's PR disaster over GM soy: did it really need to lie to its loyal customers?

Tesco (and the other supermarkets) have created for themselves a PR disaster relating to the switch of policy on GM soy fed to poultry and egg suppliers. They knew that their policy change would be unpopular -- and that is why they all issued their statements on the same day in an attempt to share the pain. That has backfired spectacularly, since the loyal customers of Sainsburys, the Co-op, and Marks and Spencer have become simultaneously very angry, venting their anger in the social media and loading both Facebook and Twitter pages with very unwelcome comments. Also, consumers are aware that the supermarkets have acted as a cartel here -- signalling an acceptance of GM soy feed which has clearly been carefully planned for some time, backed up by an agreement that none of them would seek to gain a competitive advantage by remaining true to the original non-GM policy. Only Waitrose has had the courage to stand out from the crowd.

There are clearly powerful forces at work here -- and in the background is the ongoing pressure from the US Administration to remove all trade barriers to American GM soy exports into Europe. The Americans want to "synchronise" regulatory regimes on both sides of the Atlantic -- that means they want to remove regulation altogether from GM crops and foods. The British government is acting as an ally and as a mouthpiece for this aspiration in Europe; and behind the scenes we can be quite certain that Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and DEFRA have been liaising with the NFU and other trade bodies to put pressure on the British Retail Consortium (and on the supermarket chains) to accept GM soy as an animal feed component in all sectors of the farming industry. Meanwhile, in South America, Monsanto and the other GM soy patent holders have been maintaining their ancient policy of "contamination by stealth" ever since the GM soy industry started to expand, pretending that the separation of GM and non-GM soy was impossible to maintain in handling and transport facilities etc -- and using legal and illegal intimidation of non-GM soy growers. At the same time Monsanto has operated the "85/15" policy by which merchants are only allowed non-GM soy seed on condition that it does not make up more than 15% of their total soy sales. And as if that is not bad enough, they have also systematically been removing non-GM soy varieties from merchant catalogues, so that in many areas it is physically impossible to source non-GM soy for planting. It is thought that Cargill and some other big seed suppliers have stopped supplying non-GM seeds into the Brazilian market.

Another player in this fiasco is Celeres, a research consultancy which works for Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer, Dow, BASF and even USDA -- the United States Agriculture Department. Celeres has advised soy importers in the UK that Brazilian non-GM soy supplies are shrinking, and can not be guaranteed in the future. Do you smell a rat? Well. so do we.

All of this represents a deliberate attempt to squeeze non-GM soy out of the market altogether. It is quite extraordinary that with the help of the NFU, the British Poultry Council and the British Egg Industry Council, the supermarkets are now conniving in this cynical exercise. Down the line, they will find themselves confronted by a GM soy monopoly which can control the market without mercy. The UK animal feed industry will be locked into a dependence on GM soy -- and in the process it will abandon the ancient principles of diversity of supply and security of supply. That is nothing short of idiocy, and as we have said on previous occasions, we have the makings of a perfect storm, with total dependence upon a product that is already known (among those who are prepared to look at the evidence) to be dangerous to the environment and to animal and human health.

That is all bad enough, demonstrating as it does that the UK supermarkets are both naive and irresponsible. They are also now behaving in a manner which is quite unethical, given what we know about the damage done to both the environment and to animal and human health arising from GM soy monocultures. It is disappointing, to say the least, that the UK supermarkets are now all prepared to turn a blind eye to these issues, and that they are accepting that these environmental and health costs should be externalized. Out of sight, out of mind.......

So the supermarkets must have known that there would be a backlash against this highly unpopular decision. But did they really have to lie through their teeth in seeking to justify it to their loyal customers? The Tesco statement, which continues to be trotted out to customers who protest on Facebook and Twitter, is so full of lies and disinformation that it is a classic of its kind. We were moved to respond to it in the Open Letter below. What is the public to make of a supermarket that lies through its teeth? Nobody trusts politicians and scientists to tell the truth any longer. Now they don't trust the supermarkets either -- and arguably the retail chains have the most to lose, because previously loyal customers, once disenchanted, can simply walk away and do their shopping elsewhere.

OPEN LETTER Subject: Your statement on GM animal feed is full of lies

Dear Tesco,

Your statement on GM animal feed is full of lies

I am writing about your decision -- carefully coordinated with the other supermarkets -- to allow your suppliers of poultry and eggs to use GM soy in their animal feed. This is a short-sighted move which will significantly reduce the quality of the food which you sell, and which will in due course lead to price hikes because once non-GM soy is "killed off" (which is the clear intention of Monsanto) you will have no choice but to pay whatever price the big producers choose to charge for their GM products. There will be substantial market distortion -- and you are knowingly reducing your diversity and security of supply. In the end, the customer will be the one that suffers.

Also, I gather that it is not your intention to label those products that come from animals fed on GM materials. Why not? In the light of the horse meat scandal I would have thought that transparency about the products you sell would have become the new byword for your business. That is after all what customers want, as shown in many opinion polls. I want to know what I'm eating and will not tolerate your secrecy and obfuscation.

Finally, may I point out that your statement issued to the press a few days ago was full of lies. I refer to the following:

You say the switch to GM feed will have no impact on the safety/quality of our food. That is a lie.

You say that GM contamination of non-GM soy supplies is inevitable. That is a lie.

You say there is absolutely no risk to health from eating meat from animals fed on #GM. That is a lie.

You say that GM feed has no effect on the animals that consume it. That is a lie. Animals are harmed.

You claim that DNA from GM feed is not present in animals fed on it. That is a lie.

You say farmers choose GM soy because it is resistant to pests and diseases. That is a lie.

You say there is not enough non-GM soy available for its meat and poultry suppliers. That is a lie.

All in all, it seems to me that your switch to GM soy feed is based on lies and disinformation. In my view this is a despicable betrayal of consumer wishes.

I will appreciate your detailed response to the points made above, and I ask Tesco to withdraw its statement and put right the many errors which it contained.

In the meantime, I am so appalled by this move by Tesco that I will now stop using your stores and obtain my groceries elsewhere.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Brian John GM-Free Cymru

This is the message from ABRANGE to the supermarkets, relating to the current supply situation:

Message to Tesco, Sainsburys, Marks & Spencer and the Co-op: Brazil can supply all the non-GM soya feed needed in Europe but . . .

17 Apr Farming Online reports a statement by Cesar Borges de Sousa, President of ABRANGE, the Brazilian Association for Producers of Non-GMO, assuring the four supermarkets, that Brazil has had a record harvest, producing over 20 million metric tons of non-GMO soya. Statistics can be seen here.

Three factors in the supply problem

First: there is a temporary shortage of supply getting through due to lack of available berths for mooring ships caused by spiralling export demand and some labour unrest. The BBC reports that some ships wait for two weeks and the approach roads are also congested with lines of lorries waiting to load. Exporters are actively seeking solutions to circumvent the export slow down.

Second: suppliers of the UK supermarket listed above do not arrange advance purchase contracts giving farmers an assured market for their non-GM crop, instead relying on "spot" purchase, when the crop actually comes on to the market hoping to get the soy cheaper. Unfortunately UK consumers and farm animals are the losers as European retailers who do enter into advance purchase contracts are given preference.

Third: it is said that one large supplier of non-GMO soy has withdrawn from the market and there is speculation that 'considering national affiliations', this change is related to the desire to open the UK to imports of GM soy from the USA. As yet no independent verification of this statement has been found.

A recent FSA poll indicated that nearly 70% of UK citizens prefer milk, eggs, poultry and meat produced with non-GMO feed. Mainland European retailers are responding to these consumer preferences by making strenuous efforts to expand the Non-GMO soy supply chain.

. . . should there be a switch, over time, to grass and forage and a short supply chain instead of soy?

Here are two excellent articles from the GM Education web site:

Lie First and Lie Big? Has the Industry Manipulated Supermarkets Over Non-GM Soya?

The insistence of UK supermarkets on carrying non-GM fed livestock products has long been a problem for the GM industry, pro-GM agri-business and food system "experts". Last week supermarkets dropped these products saying that the non GM feed supply is drying up. It's not, there is plenty of it. Have the supermarkets have been misled?

The presence on the supermarket shelves of non- GM fed livestock products were a daily reminder to the GM industry and their supporters that consumers don't want to buy GM.

It was also an obstacle to their goal of making food supplies completely GM.

Along with getting GM potatoes into UK supermarkets, getting non-GM livestock products off the shelves has been one of their primary short term aims.

The decision last week by a number of major UK supermarkets to drop lines of non-GMO fed livestock products was the culmination of a propaganda campaign that has been waged for many months.

There has been an intensive effort of misinformation by agri-business interests aimed at persuading supermarkets that supplies of non-GM animal feed – and in particular soya – are running out – but how complicit have the supermarkets been?

The pro-GM propaganda lobby

An article in Farmers Weekly in early March, headed "GM soya: are feed supplies running out?" is typical of articles that have appeared in the trade press over the last few months.

A number of them reference reports from an industry research consultancy called Celeres and say that supplies of critically important Brazilian non GM soya are "shrinking". Celeres' major clients are a "who's who" of GM companies, all of whom have a vested interest in squeezing non-GM soya out of the supply chain. Last December, the NFU, the British Poultry Council and the British Egg Industry Council wrote to the supermarket representative body, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) calling on them to drop their non-GM soya requirement.

They cited problems caused by reduced supply and difficulties in maintaining integrity.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) repeated the claim this week; "the likelihood of accidental GM presence is much greater than ever before and so it is no longer possible to guarantee that feed is entirely GM-free",

This is a powerful indictment of how we are allowing a few global GM and agri-business companies to control our food supply.

Non- GM Soya is plentiful and is available

The BPC's claim is highly misleading. It is still possible to guarantee GM free food - though it might be difficult in the future if we fail to curb the attempts by the GM industry to control the food chain.

Where is the BPC's evidence that the feed supply chain is contaminated with GM? How many samples do they take? What is the range and spread? Are they saying that UK feed importers and manufacturers are breaking the 0.9% threshold at which GM contamination has to be legally declared?

In fact industry insiders admit that testing of animal feeds for GM residues is "sporadic" at best.

The massive dollop of misinformation though is the claim that non-GM soya supply is reducing. According to Cert ID, who has been certifying non-GM products for 13 years, there is an estimated 5.8 million tonnes of non-GM soya available from the Brazilian alone. Added to which China and India's soya production is 100% non-GM (

Far from "shrinking" the non- GM soya supply in Brazil has increased in 2013 by over 1 million tonnes from the years 2008 -2012.

The GM industry squeeze

This is not to say that there are no difficulties with the UK supply chain. There are but they are to do with lack of commitment by the industry and arguably actions being taken to squeeze non-GM feed out of the UK market.

There are some logistical problems and both Cert ID and Abrange, the Brazilian association of non-GM grain producers, acknowledge a lack of berthing facilities at Brazilian docks.

This they say is temporary and in any case has not prevented supermarkets in France and Germany sticking to and even extending their non-GM animal feed policies.

According to Abrange one large supplier of non-GM soy – thought to be Cargill- has withdrawn from the market.

Cargill dominates UK soya imports and has long been implacably opposed to GM and have argued in the past that non-GM supplies are drying up as a tactic to further their GM agenda.

Nonetheless, or because of this, UK feed manufactures and supermarket suppliers have failed to develop alternative supply lines.

Can citizens trust supermarkets?

It is also undeniable that the high price of non-GM soya has been a problem for UK companies as supermarkets keep a tight grip on their margins.

Non-GM soya carries a premium of between £80-£100 per tonne.

Because of this UK feed manufacturers are reluctant to "buy forward", preferring to wait and deal on the "spot" market. Consequently the UK has "under bought" in recent years.

This is a direct result of the way supermarkets deal with their suppliers across the board.

Their failure to show leadership and commitment to non-GM livestock feed has certainly been transmitted to the supply chain.

Whether the supermarkets have been deliberately misled by the pro-GM industry or whether they stage managed the whole thing themselves is unclear.

What is clear is that they have badly let down there customers and to add further grievous injury to the damage, they propose not to put GM labels on their GMO fed livestock products.

18/4/13 Sources:

Supermarkets on GM: Look, Don't See, No Choice

Despite clear consumer evidence that choice and transparency are increasingly important to their shopping experience, the supermarkets are backing consumers into a corner when it comes to GM fed animals. No labelling and few alternatives, it isn't good enough.

Last week Tesco's, Sainsbury's, Marks and Spencer and The Cooperative joined the ranks of Morrisons and ASDA in abandoning their pledges for GM-free feed for poultry. Tesco cited its reasons; "Over recent weeks UK poultry and egg suppliers have been telling retailers that it is increasingly difficult for them to guarantee that the feed they use is entirely GM free. We could not continue with a promise we cannot be sure it is possible to keep."

This has confused exporters of non-GM soya for animal feed, who say there is plenty; "This year, Brazil has enjoyed a record soybean harvest of over 82m tonnes, large enough to more than provide Europe's entire soy meal demand. The percentage of non-GMO soy is estimated to be around 25% of the current crop."

Opacity not transparency

But this is a whole other story- and we've covered it here. In the mean-time, reversal of this change of policy by supermarkets is unlikely to happen without considerable pressure from consumers, but as it stands the supermarkets have made a good job of assuring that this won't happen by refusing to label these products as GM-fed.

We rang all four of the supermarkets, and with the exception of The Cooperative, all said they would not be labelling the products as GM-fed. The Cooperative has said that they intend to, and if they do then full marks, but as it is likely to put their products at a market disadvantage, this claim may be short lived.

Just label it

So the U-turn on GM feed was based on misinformation, and the supermarkets are carrying this through by not letting their customers make informed choices. Despite supermarket's promises to be more transparent about what we're eating, it seems that this was a very superficial claim, and they have not learned their lesson from the horsegate scandal.

You can still avoid GM-fed poultry and eggs by buying organic at any outlet, shopping at Waitrose who, like the Happy Egg Company are sticking to their GM free promises, but this is still not enough. Choice is being squeezed.

Do something about it

We need labelling, we need transparency and above all, we need choice. So use the power of words to make waves and effect change, use social media to spread the word and push for change; because as Margaret Mead once said;

"A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

If emails are more your thing, here are the addresses and a few examples:

(1) Dear M&S, I am bitterly disappointed in your decision to drop your non GM fed ranges. As a concerned consumer I believe I have the right to know what I'm eating, and would like to see your recent move to switch to GM feed highlighted by accurate labelling on your products. Claims that GM is safe are contentious issues and I would like to be able to make the decision whether I buy such products myself. Until clear labelling is introduced I will be buying my eggs, dairy and meat from retailers that stick to their non-GM policy and I will not be frequenting your shops until you adopt greater transparency policies about GM.


(2) Dear Tesco, It was a strange and I believe misinformed decision to drop your non-GM fed poultry and eggs. In the light of the horsegate scandal I would have thought that transparency about the products you sell would have become the new byword for your business. I want to know what I'm eating and find it very dishonest of you not to identify the use of GM on your animal products. I am interested to know why you could not use your market power to contract in non-GM soya supplies that we now know are available. Despite this policy change, we have as consumers, the right to know what we're eating, so label your meat, dairy and eggs as GM-fed so I can make an informed decision.