Civil society calls on supermarkets to show leadership on GMOs

February 9, 2021 by Staff Reporter

Leaders from food, farming, student activism, religion, business, democratic reform and academia have written to British supermarkets asking them to refuse to stock foods produced from unregulated and unlabelled gene-edited crops and animals.

The more than 50 signatories to the joint letter, among them the Soil Association, Landworkers’ Alliance, Students for Sustainability, Green Christian, and Professor Emeritus of Food Policy at City University, Tim Lang, represent a broad range of interests. They also represent the concerns of millions of supporters and members throughout the UK.

As detailed in the letter, recent surveys show that the majority of UK citizens remain unconvinced about the benefits of genetically engineered foods and are opposed to their introduction.

Since unlabelled GMOs are unlawful in the EU, deregulation also compounds the post-Brexit headaches retailers are experiencing having to deal with dual regulations in their Northern Ireland stores. UK supermarkets, therefore, have further good reasons to take a stand.

The letter, reproduced below, is a joint initiative of Beyond GM and Slow Food in the UK and comes in the midst of a 10-week public consultation on government plans to remove regulatory controls, including consumer labelling, from plants and animals created using a new and experimental genetic engineering called ‘gene editing’.

It was sent to the CEOs of the UK’s major supermarkets. Some 90% of people in the UK buy their food from supermarkets. This means that supermarkets – and their customers – are in a position to have real influence on GMO policies and regulations.

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According to Pat Thomas, Director of Beyond GM: “The spectre of genetically engineered crops and animals raises inevitable concerns, not just for human health and the environment but around ethics, societal values, consumer choice, the practicalities of business in post-Brexit Britain and transparency throughout the food chain. In its haste to deregulate, government is ignoring these complexities. Now more than ever it’s important that influential businesses such as supermarkets demonstrate foresight, leadership and loyalty to their customers by supporting robust regulation.”

Shane Holland, Executive Chairman of Slow Food in the UK, adds: “The majority of consumers are clear that they don’t want GM and GE foods on the supermarket shelves. We are asking stores to respect those wishes, and instead concentrate on high quality, high welfare food for which our nation can be proud.”

Activities to support the letter and put pressure on supermarkets to respond (#NotInMySupermarket) will be stepped up by all signatories in the coming weeks.

A .pdf of the letter is available for download here.

The press release is available here.

The letter

We are writing to you, as leaders from civil society and the food and agriculture sector, who are committed to high quality food and farming and to supporting high quality retailers.

As you will be aware, on 7 January the Government announced a 10-week consultation on deregulating gene-edited plants and animals produced for food. At the same time it has made several incorrect statements suggesting that new gene editing techniques are the same as traditional breeding. These statements fly in the face of existing scientific knowledge and the 2018 European Court of Justice ruling [1]. That ruling made it clear that, both scientifically and legally, gene editing is the same as genetic engineering and that gene edited crops and animals are genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The ruling also stated: the risks linked to the use of those new techniques…might prove to be similar to those which result from the production and release of a GMO”. These risks include multiple off-target effects which could be harmful to human health and the environment [2]. In the case of gene-edited livestock, the inherent animal welfare issues and societal concerns further indicate the need for robust regulation.

The push for deregulation has ramifications for trade [3] and we particularly note Stormont’s concern about negative consequences for trade with Northern Ireland [4], as these products are unlawful in the EU. We are very aware of the very real difficulties your stores are experiencing having to deal with dual regulations in your Northern Ireland retail estate. Deregulation has the very real potential to compound these difficulties significantly.

The Scottish and Welsh Governments have been clear that they will maintain their prohibition on producing GMO crops and animals, but UK internal market rules could stop them taking action to prevent sales of GMO products approved in England. This is a recipe for consumer confusion and significant operational difficulties for retailers.

The public – your customers – remains overwhelmingly against genetically engineered foods. A 2020 survey by Food Standards Scotland [5] found that, next to chlorinated chicken, genetically engineered foods are a top issue of concern for 57% of consumers. Another 2020 study conducted by the National Centre for Social Research [6], which focused on Brexit-related issues, found that 59% wish to maintain a ban on genetically engineered crops. Yet another survey, in 2021, by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council [7] found that 64% of those who took part were opposed to the cultivation of genetically engineered food.

The experience of over two decades has shown us that genetic engineering has not delivered positive results for agriculture. In contrast, traditional breeding techniques are delivering the safe and nutritious food that British consumers want. Retailers have the power to shift the balance away from short-term technofixes towards ecological farming systems that promote longer-term sustainability.

European retailers such as Aldi, Carrefour, EDEKA, Kaufland, Lidl, Rewe and SPAR have been following a strict non-GMO policy for many years [8] and are already reaping the commercial benefits of their non-GMO policies.

We are asking you, as one of the UK’s leading retailers, to listen to your customers, to be respectful of nature and science, to be mindful of the future and to demonstrate leadership by joining us in opposing the deregulation of genome edited crops and livestock in England and the rest of the UK.

Please issue a statement opposing deregulation and reassuring your customers that you will not stock these experimental and inadequately researched foods, should they be allowed under UK law.

We look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

 

Pat Thomas
Director, Beyond GM

Shane Holland
Executive Chairman, Slow Food in the UK 

Deborah Tomkins
George Dow
Co-Chairs, Green Christian

Jamie Agombar
Executive Director, Students Organising for Sustainability

Helen Browning
Chief Executive, Soil Association

Liz O’Neill
Director, GM Freeze

Patrick Holden
Founder and Chief Executive, Sustainable Food Trust

Prof Tim Lang
Professor Emeritus of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, City University

Claire Robinson
Editor, GMWatch

Jyoti Fernandes
Director, Landworkers’ Alliance

Roger Kerr
Chief Executive, Organic Farmers and Growers

Jimmy Woodrow
Executive Director, Pasture-Fed Livestock Association

Peter Kindersley
Trustee, Sheepdrove Trust

Guy Singh-Watson
Founder, Riverford Organic Farmers

Josie Cohen
Head of Policy and Campaigns, Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK)

Anna Van Der Hurd
CEO, A-Team Foundation

Tracy Worcester
Director, Farms Not Factories

Christopher Stopes
Adrian Steele
Co-Chairs, English Organic Forum

Prof Martin Caraher
Professor Emeritus of Food and Health Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City University 

Lucy MacLennan
Chief Executive, Organic Research Centre

Robert Reed
Grants Manager, Farming the Future

Kate McEvoy
Ben Gabel
Directors, Real Seeds 

Cristina Dimetto
General Manager, Organic Trade Board

Jacqueline Pearce-Dickens
CEO, Whole Health Agriculture

Clare Marriage
Chief Executive, Doves Farm

Pete Ritchie
Director, Nourish Scotland

Colin Tudge
Trustee, Real Farming Trust

Liz Hosken
Director, Gaia Foundation

Julie Brown
Director, Growing Communities

Prof Brian Wynne
Professor Emeritus of Science Studies, Lancaster University

Helen Woodcock
Co-founder and Coordinator, Kindling Trust

Gabriel Kaye
Executive Director, Biodynamic Association UK

Prof Erik Millstone
Professor Emeritus of Science Policy, University of Sussex

Dr Tom Wakeford
European Director, ETC Group

Prof Michel Pimbert
Director, Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University

David Price
Managing Director, Seed Co-operative

Abby Rose
Co-founder, Farmerama

Andrew Trump
Managing Director, Organic Arable

Peter Richardson
Chairman, Organic Growers Alliance

Emma Rose
Director, Unchecked UK

Paolo Arrigo
Director, Franchi Seeds

Dr Janet Cotter
Founder, Logos Environmental

Dr Ricarda Steinbrecher
Director, Econexus

Joanna Clarke
Chairman, Pro-Natural Food Scotland

James Campbell
CEO, Garden Organic

Mary Quicke
Managing Director, Quicke’s

Suzanne Barnard
Senior Campaign Manager, Meat Free Monday

Chris Young
Coordinator, The Real Bread Campaign

Trevor Griffin
Owner, Kirkby’s British Friesians

Suzy Russell
Network Coordinator, Community Supported Agriculture

Kimberley Bell
Founder
Small Food Bakery

 

Footnotes

[1] http://curia.europa.eu/juris/documents.jsf?num=C-528/16

[2] https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-020-00361-2

[3] https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/leader/gene-editing-debate-represents-first-test-of-uk-divergence-from-eu-rules/651895.article

[4] https://www.agriland.co.uk/farming-news/mcaleer-concerned-over-uks-commitment-to-gene-editing/

[5] https://www.foodstandards.gov.scot/publications-and-research/publications/survey-of-food-concerns-in-relation-to-brexit-wave-1

[6] https://natcen.ac.uk/news-media/press-releases/2020/october/after-four-years-of-brexit,-british-social-attitudes-reveals-voters%E2%80%99-hopes-and-fears-for-life-outside-the-eu

[7] https://whatukthinks.org/eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/WUKT-EU_Initial-Deliberation-Findings-Paper_v5.pdf

[8] https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/opinion/give-the-people-what-they-want-non-gmo-sells; see also https://www.feednavigator.com/Article/2019/11/15/Awareness-of-non-GMO-label-in-Germany-nearly-doubles