Honey - Nature's Finest - 15th November 2011

Honey melts in the mouth and drips off the tongue, soothing sore throats and masking the taste of nasty medicine. You can cook with it, dribble it on your toast or just lap it up from the jar. But how would you feel about nature's sweetest treat if it rocked up at the farmers market with a GM label? European beekeepers are aghast at the idea, but if a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) comes into effect, they will be tasked with proving that their bees are GM-free or forced to do just that.

As I write, the temperature is dropping and my bees are making the most of the final autumn sun by taking to the skies as often as possible. Amazingly, they're still bringing home pollen – protein food for young bees – but before long they'll form a cluster in the hive to keep each other warm and eke out the days on sticky honey stored to see them through the winter. As a new beekeeper, the last thing on my mind is producing honey as a commercial enterprise – it's been stressful enough helping my May swarm build up enough stores to see them through the winter, and fight off determined wasps and neighbouring bees intent on helping themselves.

For those that make their living from selling honey, however, and the many hobbyist beekeepers that sell to the public, the market is about to turn on its head if a recent ECJ ruling is enforced. Following a case involving a German beekeeper who complained that his honey crop had been ruined by GM farmers growing corn close to his apiary, the ECJ shocked the world by deciding that the GM pollen present in his honey crop should be considered an 'additive', needing approval as a GM food and consequently labelled as such.

This decision flies in the face of the EU Honey Directive, which recognises pollen as a naturally occurring and acceptable substance in honey – and doesn't need labelling as GM as long as levels remain below 0.9 per cent. In the UK, where relatively few farmers have turned to GM crops, the majority of beekeepers will be spared the public relations nightmare of labelling their products as a GM food, but may still incur the cost of proving that they are GM-free.

The question uppermost in people's minds is whether it will become more cost effective for beekeepers to filter pollen out completely just to be on the safe side. Honey is already filtered to remove naturally-occurring debris – no one wants to dip a spoon into their honey jar and pull out an antenna – but the pollen remains intact. More intense filtering, or ultra-filtration, a process which is not applied in the UK, involves heating the honey before forcing it through filters at high pressure.

The poorest quality imports that end up on the shelves have also been watered down and artificially sweetened, bearing little resemblance to honey as we know it. Perhaps even more crucially though, aside from the taste and health implications, once the pollen has been removed, there is no effective means of tracing the honey's origin or the processes that were applied to create it.

These issues aside, the new ruling has caused deep consternation among beekeepers, among whom it is seen as 'a very bad thing indeed'. Beekeepers finding that their bees have been foraging among GM plants face the same exasperation as a farmer who discovers GM seeds sprouting in his organic cabbage field; seeds and pollen cannot be isolated from the world around them and if we don't want traces of GM turning up where they're not wanted, the only option is to avoid them altogether.


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