Martin Hickman: Approval is one thing, but will the public swallow GM foods?

Wednesday 22 September 2010 00:00

Genetic modification isn't something that particularly vexes the public – at least for now. Research shows that public "concern" about the issue has fallen from 43 per cent in 2001 to 27 per cent in 2008.

Only 6 per cent of people spontaneously mention GM as a concern compared with 20 per cent at the peak of the "Frankenstein Foods" row in 2003. This drop-off is probably because people think GM has been "dealt with", according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which did the polling.

Admittedly, GM is officially dead in the UK. Following a public uproar in the early Noughties, no supermarket stocked it for fear of a shopper rebellion.

But many people are unwittingly consuming GM-related products: meat from cattle-fed GM soya is legally sold without labelling, and some caterers illegally use GM vegetable oil without telling diners.

Companies hanker after GM because it is cheaper. Agricultural superpowers such as the US and Brazil grow GM maize and soya with gusto. Last year, non-GM supplies were 10 to 15 per cent more expensive, costing UK shops £24m a year. That could rise to £45m.

Last year, after meeting Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Somerfield, Aldi and Co-op, the FSA said: "Retailers were concerned that they may not be able to maintain their current non-GM sources of supply as producers increasingly adopt GM technology around the world."

It might be, the "stakeholders" pointed out, "timely to inform consumers of the issues surrounding GM and non-GM supply chains".

Tesco's outgoing chief executive, Sir Terry Leahy, reflected in a speech last year that giving in to opposition to GM may have been a mistake. He added: "Maybe there is an opportunity to discuss again these issues and a growing appreciation by people that GM could play a vital role in feeding the world's growing population."

The feed-the-world argument seems to be gaining ground. According to campaigners, Whitehall has long wanted GM: after all, Britain's scientists could lead its commercially lucrative development.

In a consultation last autumn on boosting food production, the the then Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said GM might help – if it had scientific support.

In June, Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary and a former director of a biotechnology lobbying firm, was quoted as supporting GM crops. But she later told The Independent: "I want a science-led, evidence-based policy towards GM and I think that should be achievable."

Last week the Government pleased campaigners by scrapping a £500,000 "consumer engagement" project, from which two advisers had quit, claiming it was biased in favour of GM.

David Willetts, the Science minister, said the Government wanted to review past dialogues on scientific controversies "to ensure we understand how best to engage the public over such issues".

How long can Britain hold out against GM? It depends not just on whether the process wins support from scientists, but whether politicians and retailers think the public can stomach it.

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