The GM Debate and the Irish Pig Meat Sector

Peadar Lawlor and Maria Walsh, Principal Research Officer and Research Officer in the Pig Development Unit based at Moorepark Research Centre, explore the viability of the Irish pig industry in the presence of a GM feed ban.
calendar icon 17 November 2009
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Peadar Lawlor

Maria Walsh

Over millennia, plants and animals have undergone substantial genetic changes, as those individuals with the most desirable characteristics were selected by humans for breeding the next generation. These desirable characteristics are naturally occurring variations in the genetic make-up of individuals. Recently, it has become possible to modify the genetic material of living cells and organisms using techniques of modern gene technology. Organisms, such as plants and animals, whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered in such a way, are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (Europa, 2008). The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines GMOs as those organisms in which the DNA has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally (WHO, 2002). The technology is often called ‘modern biotechnology’ or ‘gene technology’, sometimes also ‘recombinant DNA technology’ or ‘genetic engineering’. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another and also between non-related species.

What is a GM Food or Feed?

The food and feed that contain or consist of such GMOs, or are produced from GMOs, are called genetically modified (GM) food or feed (Europa, 2008). Regulation (EC) 1829/2003 established 0.9 per cent as base level for ‘presence of GMO’. Therefore, in the EU, any food or feed containing more than 0.9 per cent GMO is legally considered a GM food or feed.

Global Picture

This year is the 14th year in which GM crops were grown commercially in the world. Worldwide, 125 million hectares of GM crops were planted in 2008. The unprecedented uptake of this technology is due to the substantial economic benefits to farmers worldwide (James, 2008).

Twenty-five countries grew GM crops (15 developing countries and 10 industrialised countries) in 2008. In order of largest area grown, they were: the USA, Argentina, Brazil, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, the Philippines, Australia, Mexico, Spain, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, Burkina Faso, the Czech Republic, Romania, Portugal, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Egypt. The first eight of these countries grew more than one million hectares each. The USA is by far the largest grower of biotech crops, with 62.5 million hectares grown there in 2008 (James, 2008).

If more than one gene from another organism has been transferred to a particular crop, the created GMO has stacked genes (or stacked traits), and is called a gene stacked event. Many new GM varieties contain two or three ‘stacked traits’, which confer multiple benefits. For this reason, adoption growth can be more precisely measured when expressed as ‘trait hectares’, rather than hectares. In 2008, 166 million ‘trait hectares’ were grown globally (James, 2008).

Stacked trait hybrids are likely to play a major role in the continued adoption of GM crops worldwide.

Ireland and GM Crops

Currently, no genetically modified (GM) crops are cultivated in Ireland. However, Ireland relies more on imports of animal feed ingredients than any other country in the European Union (EU). Ireland is 52 per cent reliant on imports, while the UK is only 36 per cent, France 19 per cent, and Germany 26 per cent dependent (Hughes, 2008). In particular, Ireland does not have enough land to be self-sufficient in the protein supplements required for animal feeds. The high protein content in pig diets is achieved by using imported soybean and maize products (corn gluten feed, distillers dried grain), which are primarily sourced from the US, Brazil and Argentina. A large proportion of these are GM ingredients authorised for feeding in the EU. Between 2005 and 2007, over 3.4 million tonnes of GM feed ingredients were imported to offset the deficit in domestic feed supplies.

Cost of Substituting Imported GM Feed with a Non-GM Equivalent

The idea of declaring Ireland a GM-free country has been raised by some as a mechanism to enhance the export potential of the Irish food industry. It is important to note that EU law prohibits the imposition of a national ban on GM crops/feed unless scientific research can support a ban based on health/environmental fears. The only way that Ireland could adopt a GM-free position would be to do so based on a voluntary decision by the Irish agricultural sector.

It is very difficult to predict accurately the financial impact of a GM-free Ireland on the Irish pig industry. Soybean and maize would be the ingredients of most concern in this regard. Pig diets are formulated on a least cost basis and if one ingredient becomes expensive the formulation is altered to incorporate a cheaper alternative. In addition to the GM situation, other factors such as weather, freight, currency, energy cost and funds activity will all impact on ingredient supply and price, thus influencing the ingredient composition of pig diets. Today, the additional cost of formulating a GM-free pig diet would increase for the following reasons:

  1. cost of sourcing similar non-GM ingredients.
  2. cost of substituting GM ingredients with alternative protein and energy products, and
  3. while GM maize by-products are not used to a great extent in pig diets, the effect of using more wheat and barley as substitutes in ruminant diets would make such cereals scarcer, thus increasing their cost of inclusion in GM-free pig diets.

Table 1 contains an estimate of the cost of formulating a GM-free composite pig feed on 11 September 2009. At that time, GM-free soya was available at a premium of €35 per tonne. All the maize being imported at the time was GM-free with no premium over GM maize. However, there was a premium for non-GM maize gluten and maize distillers of €10 and €18, respectively. In Table 1, maize and maize products are not distinguished and a premium of €10 is assumed for non-GM over GM.

If Irish farmers were to feed non-GM pig diets based on ingredient prices on 11 September 2009, the cost of feeding a pig would increase by €2.51 and the total cost to the pig industry would amount to in excess of €8.7 million per annum (Table 1). The EC Directorate-General for agriculture and rural development (2007) predicted that the additional cost of non-GM maize products could be as high as €60 per tonne for some Member States, including Ireland. Even if alternative feed ingredients were used instead of maize or maize by-products to formulate a GM-free diet, these alternatives would similarly increase in price. Table 1 shows a scenario where the full €60 per tonne premium for non-GM maize and maize by-products is absorbed. In this case, the cost of feeding a pig would increase by €3.93 and the total cost to the pig industry would amount to in excess of €13.8 million per annum (Table 1).

It is highly unlikely that the Irish pig industry could survive in a GM-free Ireland in the absence of a premium being paid for GM-free pig meat. The history of recovering such premiums from the marketplace has not been a positive one.

EU Authorisation

As the area of GM crops increases year on year, it becomes increasingly difficult and more expensive to access non-GM alternatives. In addition, it can take up to 33 months to get a GM feed ingredient authorised in the EU, which means that these crops are generally harvested before EU authorisation is received. The delay in the authorisation process results in a premium being paid by the industry for authorised GM alternatives or non-GM alternatives.


Genetic engineering is a tool employed by plant breeders, which allows faster genetic improvement than is achievable with traditional plant breeding technologies. It is mainly used to confer herbicide resistance or insect resistance or both to a crop.

The Irish feed industry is highly reliant on imported feed ingredients, particularly soya and maize by-products, as a source of protein.

If Ireland were to adopt a GM-free position, the resulting hikes in feed cost would make it difficult for the Irish pig meat sector to survive. As it is, Irish farmers pay a premium for authorised GM feed ingredients over world market prices because of the lengthy authorisation process currently in place in the EU.


Europa, 2008. GM Food & Feed.

European Commission, Directorate-General for agriculture and Rural Development. (2007). Economic impact of unapproved GMOs on EU feed imports and livestock production.

Hughes, R. 2008. Developments in feed grain markets. In: Proceedings of the Teagasc National Tillage Conference, January 2008, Carlow, pages 13-22.

James, C. 2008. Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2008. ISAAA Brief No. 39. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY, USA. Regulation (EC) no 1829/2003 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 September 2003 on genetically modified food and feed. Official Journal of the European Union. 23 pages.

Teagasc. 2008.

WHO 2002. Biotechnology (GM foods): 20 questions on genetically modified foods.

November 2009
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