UK: What does the future hold for non-GM poultry feed?

FWi -- British poultry producers are facing an uncertain future, with retailers insisting they use GM-free feed at a time when supplies are dwindling and prices are soaring. If this stand-off continues producers may end up losing significant amounts of money through paying premium feed prices, or face losing their market for chickens and eggs.

Most of the UK's non-GM soya comes from Brazil, which harvested 40% non-GM varieties this year - a volume which is likely to drop to just 20% next year, says Martin Humphrey, feed sales director at Humphrey Feeds. There is a certain inevitability about where we're going - there is less and less non-GM soya being planted in the world. As long as availability reduces, the premium will increase, and it will become harder and harder for the supply chain to accept that price.

It is also becoming more difficult to keep GM and non-GM supplies separate, he adds. Cross-pollination in the field and shared handling facilities present myriad opportunities for contamination.

Certain elements in poultry feed are also already allowed to be from GM sources, including vitamins, enzymes, synthetic amino acids and oil, says Mr Humphrey.

Only one of the three main soya importers has guaranteed supplies of GM-free soya until next April, and it is struggling to get producers to commit to buying that far ahead. They're saying it is too expensive to keep feeding, says Scott Wellcome, general manager of Bunge UK. We might not have a UK market if my customers are losing money hand over fist.

GM-free soya is trading at about £30/t over GM varieties, and that premium is only going to rise as availability tightens, he adds. Bunge is importing about 300,000t of non-GM soya this year, out of the total UK market of 800,000t.

Brazilian farmers will plant next year's soya harvest this autumn, and will opt for whatever is most economic for them to grow, says Mr Wellcome. Although some will still choose to grow GM-free soya, they are increasingly moving towards GM varieties. Bunge is, therefore, not guaranteeing GM-free supplies from May 2009 onwards.

Soya meal is also just a by-product of the crop, which is primarily grown for oil, says Robert Newbery, chief poultry adviser at the NFU. The premium required to encourage farmers to plant GM-free varieties must, therefore, be significant. The idea that this little problem in the UK is going to stimulate planting is just nuts. The situation is getting more and more crucial.

GM-free soya is adding about 5% to the cost of feed, which makes up half the cost of a chicken.