We're at last beginning to face up to the reality that the world's natural resources are finite and that we're choking to death in waste of our own creation. The buzz-word du jour is 'sustainability', because without it, we're doomed.
Sustainability of our food crop production is of course a multi-dimensional issue.
A Dutch university team of business economists plus a plant researcher have published a suggested assessment scheme for crop sustainability. The scheme encompasses economic, environmental and social aspects, including profitability, global warming, water contamination, environmental toxicity, farmer health, consumer health, deforestation, and employment level.
To illustrate how their assessment works, they compared GM and non-GM soyabean meal chains in Brazil.
Interestingly, the non-GM soya-meal chain scored the most sustainable. The main factors which gave this result were the lower use of pesticide, fungicides and herbicides in non-GM crops, plus the premium price they command.
On the other hand, due to the geographical location of most GM soya crops in Southern Brazil closest to the ports, transport costs are lower for the biotech crops.
This situation could change.
Annual surveys of German consumers show that an increasing number of them are turning away from GM anywhere in their food chain.
The few GM foods on the market in Europe are labelled and easily avoided, but there is 'hidden' GM in animal feed. Most of Germany's animal feed needs are met by European grains, but there is a "protein gap" presently covered by importing 4.5 million metric tons of soya meal from overseas. Out of the major North and South American soya producers, only Brazil still produces a significant quantity (about 10 million metric tons) of GM-free soya.
Spotting a political advantage in giving the voters what they want, recent talks between the German and Brazilian governments focused on the continued GM-free soya production in Brazil.
Spotting a market advantage in giving their customers what they want, Germany's second largest food retailer, REWE, and other supermarket chains, have begun conversations with the entire soya-meal supply chain to secure GM-free animal feed. In the case of REWE, there has been a clear commitment since 2013 to achieve certified zero-GM-fed broilers, laying hens, turkeys, dairy cows, and pigs by 2016.
Germany is the biggest economy in Europe, and where German supermarkets go, suppliers in other countries have to follow if they want to sell to German retailers.
Fortunately, Brazil is already on the case. Port capacity is undergoing a significant expansion, and Brazilian exporters have become the world's leading specialists in shipping bulk volumes of identity preserved (certified pure) soya. Since 2013, the 'MAERSK Line', global market leader in container shipping, has had a special programme for transporting agri-materials. This enables smaller volumes and inland destinations to be handled effectively.
The 'pluses' identified for GM soya, already few due to its high agri-chemicals requirements and the minimal price it commands, may be set to become fewer as Brazil's transport infrastructure improves.
At the end of the day, all parts of the food supply chain have to give the end-customers (you) what they want to buy. Tell your local supermarkets to follow Germany's lead, or face the consequences.
- Daniel Gaitá-Cremaschi, et al., 2015, Benchmarking the sustainability of the Brazilian non-GM and GM soybean meal chains: An indicator-based approach, Food Policy 55
- Dr. Ludger Breloh, German Retailers fuelling the rapid growth of non-GMO soy consumption, www.globalgrainevents.com, 2015