GM material in animal feed

Last updated:
2 July 2013
sheep
Guidance on the assessment and authorisation of GM varieties for use in animal feed. Information on the source and quantities of GMOs imported for use in feed.

About this information

Applies in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland

This information is for:

  • farmers and growers
  • importers
  • manufacturers and processors
  • retailers, caterers and carers

Legal status:

This is not a guide to either best practice or to compliance with the legislation.

Introduction

Before a genetically modified organism (GMO) can be marketed or grown in the European Union (EU), it must be authorised under Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 (this legislation is also known as the 'GM Food and Feed Regulation').

This requirement applies both to living GMOs, such as maize and soya, and to feed and food ingredients derived from the processing of GM crops. The authorisation procedure includes an assessment by the Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The Panel assess the safety of the GMO and the food or feed derived from it. The Panel’s scientific advice is then taken into account by the Commission and member states when deciding whether to authorise the GMO for use in the EU.

On the basis of these assessments, there is no reason to suppose that GM feed presents any more risk to farmed livestock than conventional feed. GM feed, which is very unlikely to contain viable GMOs, is digested by animals in the same way as conventional feed. Food from animals fed on authorised GM crops is considered to be as safe as food from animals fed on non-GM crops.

Transfer of GM material from feed

There have been some concerns that functional transgenes from GM-derived feed materials might be incorporated into livestock products for human consumption (milk, meat and eggs).

Biologically active genes and proteins are common constituents of food and feed, but digestion in both animals and humans is known to rapidly degrade their DNA, and the subsequent uptake of DNA fragments from the intestinal tract into the body is a normal physiological process.

In a statement published on 20 July 2007, the EFSA advised that 'a large number of experimental studies with livestock have shown that recombinant DNA fragments or proteins derived from GM plants have not been detected in tissues, fluids or edible products of farm animals like broilers, cattle, pigs or quails'. Broilers are chickens bred for meat production, and are not egg-laying hens.

When reviewing the issue later the same year, EFSA noted that 'the recombinant sequence is present in the GM plant only as a single or low copy number, which makes the potential absorption a rare event and therefore difficult to detect', and that 'when more studies are carried out with more sensitive detection methods, such recombinant DNA fragments may be more frequently found in the future'.

It is therefore possible that DNA fragments derived from GM plant materials may occasionally be detected in animal tissues, in the same way that DNA fragments derived from non-GM plant materials can be detected in these same tissues.
EFSA also noted that 'no technique is currently available to enable a valid and reliable tracing of animal products (meat, milk, eggs) when the producer animals have been fed a diet incorporating GM plants'.

Authorisation of GMOs

Before the GM Food and Feed Regulation came into force, 10 GM plant lines with potential use in animal feed had been licensed for commercialisation in the EU under the Directive 2001/18 on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment (this legislation is also known as the 'Deliberate Release Directive').

There were also several products on the European market derived from plant lines which had not been authorised under this Directive because there had been no intention to commercialise the plants themselves in the EU. All were granted temporary authorisation under the GM Food and Feed Regulation pending their evaluation by EFSA and decisions on their continued use.

Temporary and full authorisations granted under the GM Food and Feed Regulation mean that, as at March 2013, there are 48 GMOs with a possible use in feed in the EU – 27 varieties of maize, 8 varieties of cotton, 7 varieties of soya bean, 3 varieties of oilseed rape, a sugar beet, and two micro-organisms. Apart from the micro-organisms, these varieties have been produced to exhibit resistance to certain herbicides or insect pests or in some cases both. Further details of these varieties are given in the register on the Commission’s website, which can be found via the 'External sites' links on this page.

All of these GM varieties have been authorised for import and processing. Two of the maize varieties have also been licensed for cultivation, although only one is being grown commercially on a limited basis in the Czech Republic, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. The seed is not marketed in the UK because it is not suitable for cultivation here.

A larger number of GM plant lines, including varieties of cotton, maize, oilseed rape, rice and soya bean which have not been authorised for use in the EU, have been approved for growing elsewhere in the world, particularly major commodity-exporting countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, India and the USA.

In general, the EU's authorisation procedures for new GM varieties tend to be slower than those of other countries, a time-lag known as 'asynchronous authorisation'. To deal with the possible presence of unauthorised varieties in imports of commodity crops for feed use, the EU adopted a measure (Regulation (EC) No 619/2011) setting a tolerance level of 0.1% for certain varieties for which a valid application for an EU authorisation has been made.

Labelling

Feed materials and compound feeds which contain GM or GM-derived material are required to be labelled to state as much. Labelling is not required for feed consignments containing adventitious or technically unavoidable traces of GM material, up to a threshold of 0.9% for GM varieties approved in the EU. According to the European Feed Manufacturers' Association (FEFAC), at least 85% (around 107 million tonnes) of the EU's compound feed production is now labelled to indicate that it contains GM or GM-derived material.

Supplies of GM material to the EU

The spread of biotechnology through commodity-exporting countries means that supplies of feed materials to the EU will contain a proportion of GM-derived products. It is not possible to quantify this as there is no legal requirement for importers to declare the quantities, but these imports are considered by the EU feed industry as unavoidable because the EU is not self-sufficient in protein-rich feed.

The European Feed Manufacturers' Association estimates that, annually, the EU feed industry imports more than 70% of its maize, soya and rapeseed requirements. Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and the USA are major producers of soya beans and soya bean meal, almost all of which is now GM. Significant quantities of maize, in the form of distillers' dried grains and corn gluten feed, are imported from the USA; much of this will be GM. The USA also supplies the UK with GM sugar beet. The UK imports cotton meal from Brazil, India and China, and rapeseed meal from Canada; some of this is likely to be GM.

Identity preservation – this is the segregation of GM and non-GM crops after harvest and during transport, storage and subsequent use – is not routinely practised by commodity-exporting countries, but can be achieved at a premium. The additional price paid will vary according to the state of the commodity markets and the nature of demand for the end products (milk, meat and eggs for human consumption).

Quantities of GM feed materials grown worldwide

The area planted with GM crops has expanded greatly since the mid-1990s, from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 170.3 million hectares in 2012, grown by an estimated 17.3 million farmers. Developing countries account for 52% of this yield, although most of the farmers in these countries are producing on a smaller scale than their industrial-scale equivalents in the Americas.

The USA is the largest producer of GM commodity crops. In 2012, it had 69 million hectares under cultivation, followed by Brazil in second place with 36.6 million hectares and Argentina in third place with 23.9 million hectares. The other significant commodity crop exporting countries, each growing more than 1 million hectares of GM varieties, are Bolivia, Canada, China, India, Pakistan, Paraguay, South Africa and Uruguay.

The leading GM crop is soya, which by volume accounts for just under half of all the GM crops grown worldwide. GM maize is the second most common crop, accounting for a third of global GM production. Canada is the leading producer of GM oilseed rape. Brazil, India and China account for the bulk of GM cotton production. Overall, it is estimated that GM crops now occupy over 12% of the world’s arable land, an area over six times the size of the UK.