Many so-called organic foods contain genetically modified soya.
A wide range of 'organic' food products on sale in the United Kingdom contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, according to a study due to be published in April1. The revelation has prompted organisations that certify food as organic and GM-free, such as the Soil Association, to hurriedly review their procedures.
Transgenic soya was found in ten of 25 organic or health food products tested by Mark Partridge and Denis Murphy, biotechnology researchers at the University of Glamorgan in Pontypridd, Wales. Eight of the ten were labelled either as 'organic', which should indicate the absence of transgenic ingredients under Soil Association rules, or explicitly as 'GM-free'.
The study, which confirms previous tests by national food standards agencies in Ireland and the UK, implies that a wide range of foodstuffs probably contain traces of GM material.
Soya is a very popular ingredient, both in organic and non-organic foods. Over 60% of processed food in a typical supermarket contains soya extracts, including vegetarian sausages and soya mince. Soya flour and unprocessed soya beans are also popular in organic and health food shops. In addition, organic meat must come from animals fed on organic crops, and many farmers use organic soya meal as feed.
The results could damage the credibility of organic products. The Soil Association, which employs some of the most rigorous tests used by the 16 organisations licensed to hand out "organic" labels in the United Kingdom, claims that it can trace every ingredient in products it certifies back to farms that have been declared GM-free. The organisation sets the upper limit for GM material in organic foods at 0.1%, as it is technically difficult to measure contamination at levels below this.
But Murphy's paper reveals that at least one product labelled by the Soil Association - an organic soya flour - contained slightly more than the allowed 0.1% of transgenic soya. Other products, such as vegetarian sausage, had up to 0.7% GM content. "This research shows we need to do more," says a Soil Association spokeswoman.
Murphy predicts that it will become even more difficult in the future for the organic food industry to keep its products GM-free.
Almost all the soya from the United States and Argentina, two of the world's major producers, is transgenic. The world's third largest soya producer - Brazil - legalised GM varieties of the crop last September. In many countries, GM-free crops are often mixed with transgenic varieties after harvesting. And batches of soya seed sold as non-GM can contain 1-2% from transgenic varieties.
"In another year the problem will be ten times worse," says Murphy.
But Peter Melchett, the Soil Association's policy director, thinks Murphy has exaggerated the scale of the problem. "Levels of GM contamination in North America have taken the food industry by surprise," he says. "But there are still millions of acres of non-GM soya grown in the United States."
Partridge, M. & Murphy, D. J. British Food Journal, 106, in press, (2004).