Dramatic change as two-thirds now support GM crop testing

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Public opinion appears to be shifting in favour of the development of genetically-modified crops, according to a ComRes survey for The Independent.

Asked whether the Government should encourage experiments on GM crops so that farmers can reduce the amount of pesticides they use, 64 per cent of the public agreed and 27 per cent disagreed, while 9 per cent replied "don't know".

There was a significant "gender gap", with women more cautious about the trials than men. While 70 per cent of men believe that such experiments should be encouraged, only 58 per cent of women agree.

However, there were few differences by age, social class or parts of the country. Liberal Democrat ministers believe many of their party members might be hostile to a big push on GM foods. But there is little sign of widespread opposition among party supporters, whose views are in line with Conservative and Labour voters.

The overall findings are a boost to scientists who hope a more "softly, softly" approach to the development of GM crops in Britain will gradually win over a sceptical public. In the 1990s, there was controversy over what were dubbed "Frankenstein foods", and strong public opposition to multinational firms such as Monsanto.

Anti-GM protestors have sabotaged crop trials in Britain in recent years by digging up fields, but a peaceful demonstration was held in May at the Rothamsted Research Institute in Hertfordshire, where genetically-modified wheat is being grown. In the government-funded experiment, the crop has been modified so it gives off an odour not detectable by humans which deters greenfly and blackfly and could reduce the need for pesticides.

No GM crops are grown commercially in Britain, but imported GM commodities such as soya are used mainly for animal feed, and to a lesser extent in some foods.

Supporters believe GM crops could play a vital role in tackling global food shortages and rising prices. In 2011, they were grown by 16.7 million farmers in 29 countries on 160 million hectares – an 8 per cent rise on the previous year.

Opponents claim the European Union, which licenses the commercial use of GM products, is preparing to bring genetically-modified animals to the European market because it is drawing up safety guidelines.

Pete Riley, campaign director of GM Freeze, said: "Why has the European Commission decided to spend money on this when times are so hard? European consumers have already rejected GM food, so why would parents want to feed their families on meat, fish and milk from GM animals, especially as the production of GM animals will raise additional ethical concerns?"

Anti-GM campaigners have criticised Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, and his wife Melinda for using their foundation to fund a £6.4m project to develop GM crops at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.