"The corporate community should now embrace GM crops and food"

Monday, May 13, 2013

18:00 - 18:00

On the 13th May, in another Forum first, the crowd came together and debated the motion:

"The corporate community should now embrace genetically modified crops and food"

We considered the Genetic Modification (GM) of crops and food in the context of other tools aimed at combatting growing stress in key commodity markets and establish the business community's position.

With the perfect storm of a rising population and declining food yields, GM is once again appearing on the radar of both business and wider-society. Jonathon Porritt and Tony Juniper have recently stated their minds are 'not closed' to GM and Mark Lynas, previously a self-professed standard-bearer for the anti-GM movement has now turned full circle, stating:

"GM is an important technological option which can be used to benefit the environment"

Anecdotal evidence suggests, whilst most businesses are unwilling to publicly support GM, many are privately taking more open positions. And, if a member of the UK government is correct in asserting that one trillion GM meals have now been eaten without adverse health effect, is it time to bring it in from the cold?

However, rising imports of non-GM soya in the EU, the proposed introduction of GM-labelling laws in 24 US states and a moratorium on the growing of GM-crops in China certainly don't suggest any softening of attitudes in the market or amongst policy-makers.

And with continued concerns that GM has the potential to contaminate the food chain, plus unease over the degree of control being handed to a small number of large corporations, is GM a discredited technology diverting attention and resource from systems proven to deliver benefits and increase production?

We believe the importance of this debate goes far beyond GM. It touches on the role technology has to play in solving social and environmental problems, and how society balances the risk of action against the risk of inaction. Nuclear fuel, nanotechnology, fracking, artificial meat and geoengineering can be added to the list.

As Anthony Kleanthaus explained in Green Futures (May '13), picking sides on GM is not as easy as it used to be and May’s debate was not a black & white one. Our expert panel, facilitated by Tom Heap, gave space to absolute positions alongside shades of grey, and used voting technology to establish the perceived importance of GM alongside other solutions to the perfect storm.

It was an important and timely debate.


Dan Crossley Food Ethics Council

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Peter Melchett Soil Association

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Phil Bloomer Oxfam

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Tina Barsby NIAB

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Round Tables

Supply Chain

Supply chain transparency: should companies that are retailing products containing GM insist that they are labelled as such? 

Carbon Strategies

Do you agree that businesses are ineffective at drawing up the business case for sustainability, and how can this be improved? 

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1-Whos’s the most senior sponsor of a sustainability agenda within your organization?
The top level is usually the CEO; the table agreed to that within Acre and BUPA. But getting the “middle management” beyond their risk horizon is often a challenge.

2- Have there been successful (or unsuccessful) attempts to put a business case around sustainability before?
It was remarked that Non execs are usually the driving force behind successful business platforms that work as a link to reflect public opinions. Historically many sustainability proposals didn’t get approved, but recently more are being considered – with more favorable rules being applied.

3-What do you think the majority of decision makers in your organization would say if you asked them what sustainability meant for the organization?
It was agreed that sustainability is a component within corporate responsibility (ABF representative)

4- Do you believe that there is a general desire in your organization for data driven business cases and strong measurement and verification with feedback to boardroom- post implementation of projects?
Data driven business is a key component for stakeholders and execs to make use of and quantify a business case. It’s now critical.

5-Is there a key competitor in your sector who is doing well?
ABF declared their Mid Pack approach; where they tend not to be at the leading edge. Though they have recently decided to seek to be at the forefront of carbon reporting. Unilever is their main competitor.

Some Keynotes:
• Adopt an influencing approach rather than mandating
• Reports can help produce a more business case if it touches on more financial data – getting the CFO on board is often critical.


What makes it right for the business community to seek to influence consumer opinion on sustainability issues, including what they think of GM?”  

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• Despite few changes in the scientific facts, there seems to be a more positive vibe towards GM (this is being tested by Farmer’s Weekly)
- have people simply got used to the idea?
- the GM counter arguments have become well-rehearsed and have not kept up with GM-pro arguments around global inequality etc.
• There are few stakeholders actively influencing consumers’ views on GM
- governments haven’t been talking about it (until Owen Patterson’s positive stance)
- researchers e.g. Rothamsted are finally making their voice heard
- but few people are using a global message e.g. about sustainability (more challenging)
• There are big parallels with sustainability
- same challenge around ‘doing more with less’
- should we be overt or covert in trying to change behaviour?
- need to move towards framing in terms of personal needs/motivations

• There remain a number of scientific uncertainties
- makes it too risky for stakeholders to use a ‘GM is safe’ message
- scientists have a role to play in doing more studies
• The debate around GM is very different in different parts of the world
• ‘Genetic modification’ as a term has really negative connotations (same in other languages?)
- needs to be re-branded (although rebranding may be shot-down) and re-framed as a solution to a bigger problem e.g. sustainable food
• Are companies the best messengers for GM?
- difficult due to (perception of) vested interests
- not currently in their competitive interest to seek an audience on GM
- need to be part of the debate but not necessarily lead it – key role for media and a need for a more accessible scientific debate
• How can you achieve effective communication?
- people have label fatigue

• The GM debate has the potential to promote debate on a number of linked aspects
• Information campaigns may provide data for companies on peoples’ actual views about GM
• Promotes transparency in industry communication

Suggested Communication Strategy
1) Companies talking about/promoting/selling GM to be clear about their motivations
2) Improve how we debate the science with the public to ensure it is relevant and understood
3) Positive messages about GM giving a competitive advantage - there is a strong argument for this on the supply side e.g. the need for cheaper animal feed in the UK
4) Promoting a wider agenda than just GM
5) Lobbying the media to portray a more balanced approach
6) Re-frame as a solution for a bigger problem


“Neo-environmentalism”: how do we decide whether technological solutions such as nuclear, GM and hydroponics are a sell-out to capitalism, or an exciting new generation of practical environmental solutions? 

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The discussion began with a brief overview of the perceived risks from GM.
• A consensus was reached that ethical concerns were the primary risk from the adoption of GM, rather than health related issues.

Defining ‘Neo-Environmentalism’
• The adoption of a technocratic approach to mitigating environmental degradation. Technological advancement as a solution for carbon clean energy such as nuclear was given as an example.
• It was felt that the term ‘Neo-Environmentalism’ was not one that was commonly used. It was suggested that because there is no homogeneity in environmental solutions, ‘Neo-Environmentalism’ that supports the sole adoption of technology has less utility than conventional environmentalism.
• This raised the question; does technology merely mitigate the symptom and not the cause? Technology was described as the ’red herring in the room’ as behavioral and systems change is more important.
• Caution over the extent to which technology is deployed was expressed. A heterogeneous approach to environmental conservation that incorporates behavioral, systems and technological change is crucial.

Re-framing ‘Neo-environmentalism’
• Discussion alluded to a political framing over the use of technology as a solution. This was presented as a ‘left’ vs. ‘right’ disagreement.
• A left anti-capitalist approach was highlighted as underpinning ‘environmentalism’. However, it was suggested that it was possible to reconcile growth and environmental degradation through green growth.
• Can economic growth be sustainable? It was thought this would be possible if there was a disassociation with surplus and wasteful overproduction of goods.

Technology Examples
• There are many issues regarding education and misinformation relating to new energy technologies, particularly regarding biomass.
• A sliding scale of networked options should be considered.
• An example of maize production for anaerobic digestion in East Anglia was made. The production of maize has led to a displacement of diversified crops and the presence of micro monopolies.
• A national promise to emissions reduction targets was felt to be the catalyst for the rolling out of innovative technological solutions.

The Role of ‘Big Business’
• There has been huge product innovation around healthy food. Leading soft drink manufacturers have diversified their product line to open up new health markets. 50% of their sales are now generated from products other than Pepsi and Cola.
• The fact big business has diversified into healthy food and drink markets is indicative of a behavior change among civic populations.

Changing Attitudes and Values
• It was noted that regarding GM, opposing attitudes and values were deep rooted.
• Parallels were drawn to a shift in stance regarding Nuclear power, from strongly hostile to more open-minded. Could a similar stance be adopted regarding GM?
• A shift in prevailing attitudes and values may be facilitated by contextualizing the risk associated with GM such as making field trial methodologies available to the public.
• Instances of GM use should be looked at in a variety of case specific contexts, rather than in blanket opposition.

Corporate Strategies

“How should sustainability executives work solutions such as GM, which may not be palatable to end consumers, into their strategy? What other technologies of offer sustainability advantages but are socially awkward - artificial meat, waste to energy etc? How should you assess whether it is worth trying to change management and other stakeholder minds versus focusing on the open doors?” 

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• The final picture of a sustainable food system is still unclear – Genetic Modification (GM) is simply a tool to achieve that goal. Key factors to be considered are stability of supply, safety and choice – these may all influence whether GM is adopted. Is GM the most cost effective way?
• Increasingly difficult to implement a completely non-GM supply chain for a product, as a result of imports from countries that have less control over the issue. Any attempt to enforce this would be logistically very challenging.
• Opponents of GM have different issues with the technology – crucially, the scientific on health issues appear unclear. Debates are often based on perception and not hard facts. Periphery issues unrelated to GM, such as central seed control, are often introduced and add confusion.
• Current policies argued to reduce options for farmers by limiting GM – farming is described as one big experiment already.
• Increasing transparency in the food industry is likely following the horsemeat scandal – but organisations might not be equipped to provide that level of transparency. A lack of data is highlighted as a key challenge.
• Eroded trust in regulators, particularly in the UK, can adversely affect public opinion. Consumer opinion and intensity of opposition is noted to vary significantly between nations. There is the perception that an unbiased view is difficult to obtain from corporates, due to lobbying and vested interests.

• It is increasingly difficult to guarantee that Animals used in food production have been fed on completely non-GM feed – hence cannot claim non-GM, a predicament for most large retailers in the new era of food information transparency.
• Transport of GM and non-GM crops with the same vehicle – can lead to contamination, introducing logistical issues with a wholly non-GM supply chain.
• Clients of large investment institutions beginning to see clients that want to screen out GM investments, and is potentially a significant issue in the future, but energy concerns (shale gas, tar sands) currently take precedence.
• In the US, consumers left out of GM decision making, compared to the EU, where there is polarized opinion between environmentalists and large agricultural businesses, but a relatively uninformed public.

Solutions and Opportunities
• A systems-approach – first the structure of a sustainable food system must be identified, then the complex trends and problems associated with reaching that goal can be tackled.
• Corporate should enter the discussion with an open mind, not a specific mantra for/against GM. As a perquisite, stakeholders must be open to debate, whether willingly or unwillingly.
• Going beyond the GM question – is giving our animals using imported feed logical?
• The definition of a sustainable GMO is as yet unclear – a set of principles for industrial biotech could be developed to give confidence that it’s addressing the major issues.
• Investment managers can significantly influence adoption of GM – but this depends on being able to demonstrate their benefits to the market.
Any sustainable corporate in the food sector needs to plan for the future – business-as-usual is no longer an option. A minimum requirement would be to examine issues surrounding GM and other trends in satisfying world demand, even if no stance were taken.

Resource Efficiency

Assuming we are in Jeremy Granthamesque era of rising food and commodity prices, can the table list the different corporate solutions for containing the rises, and draw up its top 3? 

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• Rising consumer demand.
• Climate impact on agriculture, causing decreased yields.
• While only 10-20% of annual per capita income is spent on food in e.g. western Europe, this figure in much higher for developing countries, sometimes 50%.
• Growing middle class / consumer class.
• Negative correlation between cost of agricultural commodities & real cost of water (e.g. Saudi Arabia's subsidised water & cattle exports).
• How to devise a hierarchy of products and resource uses in a resource constrained world, especially if you are producing non-essential goods?
• Difficult to access and influence smallholders selling to the domestic market.
• Consumer demand adds pressure, e.g. high demand for chicken leads to intensification of production.
• Buyers can also add pressure, e.g. in industries like fashion that have a fast turnaround, leading to intensified production / overtime.
• How to implement good metrics for sustainable / efficient agriculture without cumbersome bureaucracy?

Red Flags (warnings)
• The increasing focus on extraction: companies are rewarded for selling more, contrary to the goal of resource efficiency.
• Climate change's (CC) impact via changes in water cycle, weather, temperature, etc.
• Oversupply in the 'West' leads to waste
• Meanwhile, less sophisticated supply chains (with storage issues, etc.) in other parts of the world lead to food not making it to market as it should.

• Incentives for efficiency: reducing costs, creating competitive advantage.
• Deliver research, training, techniques and technology to smallholder farmers. Training farmers in developing world to be more resource efficient, educating on and encouraging best practice.
• Address obesity & overconsumption problems.
• SC management: 1) source from sustainable suppliers 2) then work to close the loop.
• Reduce waste at both OEM and SC levels.
• Reduce waste at consumer level.
• N.B. 1-size-fits-all solutions are not appropriate.
• For big suppliers of industrially farmed materials: make processes as efficient as possible, avoid extending land use and reinforce the right controls / regulations.
• For smaller, specific farmers: be sure the community does not suffer, provide more drought resistant strains & better crops, optimise use of space and ecosystem services, prioritise key inputs.
• Make material use more circular.
• De-commoditise commodity markets.
• Move sourcing away from risky areas and source from sustainable areas less prone to water stress, etc.
• Stop feeding grains to livestock.
• Reduce meat and dairy consumption: change consumer demand.
• An "Ebay" for foodstuffs to localise distribution, reduce food mileage and reduce cost to consumer.

• Balfour Beatty: assess impact of sourcing from a particular location (is that location in drought, etc.) as well as the global impact of inputs purchased at source.
• Diageo: working throughout the SC, from smallholder farmers to OEM level, maintaining direct contact with farmers. Access resources but never to the detriment of suppliers: e.g. sorghum might be more suitable for certain

African farmers in terms of water intensiveness.
• Puma: replacing leather with synthetic recyclable material.
• Lend Lease: responsible sourcing, 100% FSC certified timber.
• Tesco Producer Network: build long-term relationships through the SC. This allows rewarding of efficient suppliers / producers. Encourage customers to waste less as home.
• Pepsico: efficient irrigation, selective crop varieties, cutting out inefficient suppliers.
• Riversimple: moving from sale of product to sale of service, strategic reversal of financial drivers.

Plenary roundtable - 1

How can the business community ensure that science – be it health, nuclear, or GM – is accurately communicated to the media?  

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Edward Sykes asked this question to initiate the conversation: When the nuclear disaster happened in Japan, did you listen to scientists? Was it overblown?

The following comments were made:
- The real story of an event is often not when the story is happening, but more long-term and the media does not accurately portray that as they are too consumed in selling sensation stories.
- We hear from scientists at the time, but not over a longer period time, not later on.
- Media is focused on hypes/hits to social media  But that’s media, not scientists
- Unless you’re an actively interested audience, how do you keep yourself informed?
- There’s a point to be made about voices: which one do we listen to? Which voices are louder than others? Scientists or campaigners? And which of these two groups is more likely to influence policy?
- Do you trust scientists or journalists more?
- It’s all about perception and definition
- The problem with scientists is that the ones who know most are often the ones who are most reluctant to speak. They do their research and don’t really know who to speak to.
- Easier to get access to scientists in universities than in companies (reluctant to speak out because of potential backlash which might affect company profitability)
- Scientists often express themselves in a language/using terms that others don’t understand
- Is the information accurately and compellingly communicated?
- Media, like business, need to adopt more long term thinking – to be able to reinvestigate stories later on, though in reality it doesn’t work like that as popularity/success is only measured in terms of hits.
- The problem with science is that it’s not black and white, yet people don’t want grey areas: they want clear answers/messages
- How do journalists balance sources? It’s difficult because you have to tell stories and you have to compete.

The conversation then moved on to a wider GM debate, asking what the benefits of GM are:
- Dependent on context & who are you speaking to: different if you’re talking to person as corporate or as mother/father for example
- Benefits of GM in the UK to wider population? Would have to be cheaper
- If GM is to be sold in the future, it has to be sold on the basis that it does something for you (like making things cheaper…)
- Are there alternatives to GM? Why is so much money invested into GM and not other solutions, other farming methods?
- GM is one answer but not the answer to feeding a growing global population

Ecosystems & Natural Capital

How should companies weigh up GM from the perspective of Natural Capital valuation?

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Ecosystems and Natural Capital

This discussion was shorter than usual due to the new debate format in the first part. However, the table enjoyed a lively discussion and it was clear that a number of individuals in the group had significant knowledge of the area. There were plenty of balanced opinions to be offered.

Issues raised by members of the group included:
• Increasing pressure on food production
• Procurement teams in some companies eg pharmaceuticals avoid GM where possible in Europe because they are aware of a strong consumer bias against GM products
• Other producers such as soft drinks manufacturers take an ecosystem services approach and keep the option open to use GM where there is a market case but emphasising legal compliance as a priority
• Sustainable food manufacturing
• The idea of proposing a big solution for a big problem, when actually lots of small solutions are required for lots of small problems
• Is this the best debate to have? There are other problems e.g. micro nutrient deficiencies that need to be addressed more urgently.
• Rise of bio-fuels leads to rise in commodity prices.

The highest yields so far are believed to have been produced using orphaned seeds rather than GM. The use of marker systems in breeding was explained to the group.
If using a GM method e.g. to improve breeding of fruit for fruit squash takes up to 20 years for production, some members of the group questioned the viability of this method.
Many companies take the position that the company will not use GM as consumers do not want it – described as “the yuck factor”. In transgenic splicing of genes, it was agreed that consumers are put off because of the idea of “animal” and “plant” genes being brought together. Companies view genes differently: as a series of assets rather than categorizing in this way. It is possible to achieve the same outcomes with conventional breeding but the time constraint is problematic as it can take 20-30 years or even longer as described in the earlier debate.

Example: cauliflower mosaic virus or golden rice – claim that 120 different genes are put into this product and the I.P cost alone was $10 m. Level of complexity thought to be too difficult to communicate to the general public.
Another perspective on sustainable food and farming: unequivocal evidence shows that empowering women farmers has had a greater positive effect than use of GM. Furthermore, the “elephant in the room” is that the debate on GM is not about hunger at all, but rather how to mass produce commodities for the Northern hemisphere. Also, smart agriculture (and best practice knowledge sharing) is a well documented argument for a better route to better yields. The idea of agro-forestry to go with mono-culture is also increasingly being explored – disrupting field structure in order to preserve and protect soil.
Ethics - investment in drought resistant wheat crops by large charitable foundation. Suggested by member of the group that during this process, breeding resistant effectiveness has also been built in ensuring that the farmers have to return to the patent holder and buy more. Therefore patent framework is a key driver eg. Monsanto will not invest in GM if not patented. Ethical question – should it be possible to patent GM? If companies are given an opportunity to avoid ethics, it is assumed that they will. Is there a need for large companies to take a moral stance and state that regulation is not necessary? Differing opinions in group on question of what constitutes ethics in this context.
Valuing natural capital – companies are still tied to quarterly reports. This is not happening in a meaningful way in most companies so far. Suggestion that some big investors in Africa still have colonialist tendencies – some big foundations are shareholders in Monsanto.
Is our question an oxymoron? E.g. if a company is not currently valuing the caterpillars in the field, will legal feels etc increase the price of that field? At the crux of the problem, if weed control was perfect, then things that eat weeds will die out; if we stop insects from eating soy we will use less land – will this preserve more land in its natural state to provide ecosystem services? Several members of the group dismissed this argument as green wash.
If 80% of the global soy crop is already GM, it could be argued that it is already too late to make changes. The question of whether GM is damaging to human health may be the wrong question – the table almost unanimously preferred the question about damage to ecosystems.

Can GM be helpful? - can make crops drought and disease resistant; would be more comfortable with it if all research was government funded, although it was agreed that the UK government is pro GM due to lobbying and that the pro-GM lobby outweighs the anti lobby 5:1. There is a concern that because of the huge pro lobby, true transparency and availability of data will not manifest.
If the argument is being lost, it is still important to advance the arguments; furthermore, individuals in companies who understand the arguments can understand the issues and implement change.

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