Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

Frankenstein food: the monster returns

Iceland will not back down in the fight for GM-free food


Nearly all the most memorable horror films feature a monster that refuses to die. So it is with “Frankenstein food”, as our environment secretary Owen Paterson bows to the trans-Atlantic pressure for genetic modification and urges consumers to embrace this marvellous new technology. He wants Britain to be a world leader in this benign revolution that promises to feed the hungry and “free up space for biodiversity, nature and wilderness”.

Now, who on earth could object to that?

Well, not so fast, Mr Paterson. I first stumbled across genetic modification back in the 1990s, when I was shocked to discover the devious way that GM soya was being grown in the US and deliberately mixed with conventionally grown soya to try and ensure that no one could buy a GM-free version. Which mattered because soya finds its way into pretty much everything we consume, from biscuits to beer and chocolate, and because it was a fundamental denial of customer choice.

What’s more, the whole project was being driven not to feed the world or cure cancer but to make lots of money for the chemical giant Monsanto, which was pushing a GM soya variety that was resistant to their star weedkiller Roundup. Why waste fuel and labour on mechanical weedkilling when farmers could simply spray their crops with Roundup instead?

Personally I’d rather not eat anything that has been drenched in weedkiller and I embarked on a personal crusade to find alternative sources of soya. Our technical experts told me it couldn’t be done, and our competitors thought I was mad. But in 1998 Iceland became the first UK food retailer to guarantee that all its own label products were free of GM ingredients, and it didn’t take too long for everyone else to follow our example.

Now, you could argue that this is also a denial of customer choice, and I agree that properly labelled GM products have a place on the shelves for those who want to buy them. By mucking around with the genetic make-up of plants and animals, science can offer us such wonders as tomatoes with a 20 day shelf life, and “super salmon” that reach maturity in a fraction of the time taken by conventional fish. I can’t imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to eat them, but I have no wish to deny enthusiasts the freedom to do so.

Recently a group of young scientists started lobbying UK retailers, urging us to stop “scaremongering” and do more to educate our customers about the benefits not just of GM food but of other additives including monosodium glutamate, artificial preservatives and aspartame.

There are certainly benefits to the companies pushing these technologies and products, but I think our customers are discerning enough to make their own choices.

I think they understand that, in the long run, food production systems that work with the grain of Nature and avoid the excessive use of chemicals and artificial additives are most likely to be the ones that deliver safe, nutritious food and the sort of environment that we would all like our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

I agree with Mark Price of Waitrose that GM is a solution looking for a problem. That is why Iceland will continue, as far as we can, to uphold the principles we established when we became the first UK retailer to remove all artificial colours and flavours from our products as well as the first to ban GM ingredients. Because we should all have the freedom to buy food that does not cost the Earth, in any sense.

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