Chefs, will you Stir The Pot over GMOs?

Britain’s chefs can play a key role in raising public awareness about the stealth statics being used to sneak GMOs onto restaurant menus, writes Pat Thomas

World events are conspiring to make the unthinkable thinkable.

Genetically modified foods (GMOs) are coming to the UK. Quietly but determinedly the UK government is pushing forward with its plans to open up the UK’s farms, fields and kitchens to GM technology.

The recent approval of a new open air trial for genetically modified wheat in the UK has, once again, raised questions about integrating this controversial technology into UK food and farming.

This and other open air trials of GM crops in the UK, come in the midst of a new and challenging context – namely Brexit, a revived relationship with an America and multiple international trade deals, all of which aim to see Europe embrace GMOs in the way the Americas have.

Already our supermarkets and online retailers are allowing more and more imports of GM containing foods to creep onto the shelves – helping to ‘normalise’ the presence of such products, even as serious concerns about the safety of eating GMOs are being raised.

GMOs in your takeaway
This is an issue for everyone who eats, but it is a particular issue for chefs and caterers who, when we eat out, are making food choices on our behalf.

Chefs are in a unique position to raise important issues and to influence food policy and public opinion.

In the US, chefs like Alice Waters and Tom Colicchio are now leading the public discussion on GMOs.

But in the UK our chefs, caterers, hoteliers and restaurateurs are largely silent – and possibly not well-informed.

Due to lack of labelling 80% of the meat we eat in the UK is fed on GM animal feed. This of course, affects restaurants and takeaways. McDonalds admitted last year that its beef was fed on GM feed and Burger King was recently ‘outed’ as using beef fed on rainforest-destroying GMO soya.

Many UK restaurants and fast food outlets are using GM oil – perhaps without even knowing it – and without knowing that they are breaking the law if they don’t say so on the menu.

In a country where up to 70% of the public is against farming or eating GMOs, an acknowledgement of GMO ingredients on the menu is bound to throw up some interesting conversations, and PR – as pizza chain Dominos found when it admitted it was using GM ingredients in its pizza bases.

Food through a GMO lens
A genetically modified organism is defined as something created in a lab using techniques that cannot occur in nature. This definition is being pushed to the limits as new technologies for genetically engineering foods come on line.

New plant breeding technologies such as synthetic biology (synbio) – which use DNA codes written on computers and printed on 3D bio printers – are being used to produce totally man-made versions of common cooking ingredients such as vanilla, saffron, stevia, coconut and cocoa and a variety of other flavourings and fragrances. These products will likely find their first marketplace in food manufacturers, chefs and caterers.

Through the GMO lens provenance takes on a new perspective and provokes legitimate questions about authenticity: Is it real food or fake food? Is bread baked from wheat that has a gene from a cow in it suitable for vegetarians? Are those lamb cutlets the product of laboratory cloned sheep? Is that tomato really a tomato if it has a gene from a fish in it?

These are conversations we all need to have.

Be heard – take the survey
This year my campaign group Beyond GM will be focussing on GMOs in the restaurant and catering food chain. With our Stir the Pot initiative we will be holding Q&A sessions with those in food service and, via a new survey, we are inviting everyone’s views on the issue.

The survey focuses on preferences and informed choice when eating out and its early results will be brought to a special roundtable on provenance hosted by Chef Cyrus Todiwala. It will also inform a special report we are producing on GMOs in the restaurant and catering food chain and this, in turn, will form the basis of talks planned for later in the year.

Beyond GM was founded, in part, to give the largely ignored majority of citizens in the UK a presence and a voice in the GMO debate. This survey is a chance to speak up and be heard. Please take part and encourage those you know to do the same.

Pat Thomas
Director, Beyond GM

Pat Thomas is a journalist, author and campaigner. A former editor of the Ecologist magazine she’s also founder/director of The campaigning organisation Beyond GM.