The International Non-GMO Summit (which took place in Frankfurt in May 2023) brought together 200 participants from 19 countries and four continents. It aimed to strengthen ties between Eastern Europe and Western Europe, as well as between Europe and other key Non-GMO soy growing areas, such as Brazil. From field to supermarket shelf, each part of the Non-GMO sector’s value chain was present at the Summit. For those that care about sustainable food, food which is not linked to the deforestation and degradation of fragile ecosystems, and - above all - food that is Non-GMO, this was certainly the place to be.
The varied panel discussions and presentations highlighted some key overarching themes: Non-GMO has an important role to play in sustainable food systems and a vital element of that is that Non-GMO and deforestation-free go hand-in-hand. Supply of Non-GMO soy was a core debate, with speakers concluding that - whilst supply is stable and sufficient - there is more work to be done to continue to develop strong, long-term and resilient supply chains. Mutual understanding and collaboration is key in order to develop and strengthen further Non-GMO supply and together help build sustainable food systems with Non-GMO at their core.
As highlighted by food and sustainability writer, Tanja Busse, who moderated the event: “Developers of genetically modified seeds never thought that there could be a market of Non-GMO food.” Then surely the very fact that representatives from the whole spectrum – raw material producers, crushers, traders, food producers and retailers – were united at the Summit shows that this is an important and growing market, with significant influence - especially for all those that care about sustainable food.
A market ready to respond to times of crisis
During the last year, we have witnessed the devastating war in Ukraine (a major European soy producing country), sending shock waves across the world and knock-on impacts on food and energy prices, just at a time when global economies were beginning to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The impacts of living through such times of “omni-crisis” were drawn out over the course of the day’s discussions. Firstly, the initial reaction of opponents to the Non-GMO market to the war in Ukraine was to scare monger about the availability of Non-GMO soy (which were not based on the facts on the ground) and demands to drop Non-GMO labelling. Such rumours sent unnecessary jitters through the market.
Speaking to the Summit live from Ukraine, the First Deputy Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food in Ukraine, addressed the availability questions head-on: "Farmers continue to sow soybeans - a vital crop for the supply of protein to Europe. In 2022, more than 1.5 million hectares were sown in Ukraine and 3.7 million tonnes of soybeans were harvested, which is 7% more than in 2021. Since the beginning of 2023, about 1 million tonnes of Ukrainian soybeans have already been exported to the EU," said Mr Vysotskyi. He also made the point that Ukraine is committed to meeting the EU’s regulations around sustainability, in particular the new rules about deforestation. According to Mr Vysotskyi, in 2022, about 658.000 tonnes of soybeans in Ukraine (17.5% of the total production) were certified as Non-GM soybeans, in accordance with the standards of the Donau Soja Organisation.
Stable Non-GMO soy availability
Both - speakers from Ukraine and Brazil as major Non-GMO soy producing countries - painted a picture of stable and robust supply of Non-GMO, sustainable and deforestation-free soy and the potential to grow the supply further. Both confirmed that there's more than enough supply of Non-GMO soy for the European market, but that there is more work to be done to continue to develop strong, long-term and resilient supply chains. Several participants stressed the importance of stable and fair prices for farmers.
As well as the incoming EU regulation on deforestation-free products, there is also – in general – a trend in consumers’ demand for more sustainable food and also transparency over where their food is coming from. The Summit audience heard from Donau Soja and the ProTerra Foundation (co-organisers of the Summit), the gold standard in sustainability labelling, which combine Non-GMO with other key sustainability issues (such as deforestation-free, but also responsible farming practices), helping to create social and environmental benefits – for example, by ensuring workers’ rights, such as fair wages and good working conditions and spreading best farming practices, good for both farm, nature and the wider community.
Retailers are committed to Non-GMO
The Summit was also addressed directly by several major supermarkets on the Retailers’ Forum, with Rewe, SPAR Austria, Hofer (Aldi Sued) and tegut all taking to the stage. The hot topic there was that Non-GMO ticks many sustainability boxes. The retailers present were proud of their commitment to providing their customers with Non-GMO food and they were clear that that is what their customers want. The cost-of-living crisis was a topic that was high on the agenda, but it was noted that whilst shoppers used to chase low prices, there has been a shift to quality and transparency, whilst at the same time striving to make sure that such good quality, natural foods are affordable for customers.
Producers and processors working to meet Non-GMO demand
Two further panels brought together food and feed processors from the Europe and Brazil, as well as hearing first-hand how industry, working with suppliers, can make the switch to Non-GMO. The message from Ukraine was again made clear: there is strong supply of Non-GMO soy and farmers have been striving, against the odds, to provide sustainable, Non-GMO produce. But the EU can and should do more to help solve the logistical problems (mainly caused by blocked harbors) that still exist. The Brazilian perspective was also of strong supply, along with a call that farmers need certainty of the market and a stable, clearly communicated demand from Europe, and that price volatility brings risk to those producing Non-GMO soy.
The International Non-GMO Summit provided plenty of “food for thought” for attendees on how to continue to grow and strengthen the Non-GMO market. The main message of close collaboration, between both different regions globally and different parts of the food value chain, was clear. It is through working together, that global shocks, as well as shifts in legislation that the market must respond to, can be overcome.