GENETICALLY MODIFIED foods have very little chance of being accepted in Europe unless celebrity chefs and retailers back them.
With UK retailers having put expansive GM-free policies in place – both for food and livestock feed – and misinformation in the mainstream media, consumers are unsure what to think about the controversial technology, or who to trust.
“Consumers don’t know what to think about [GM] and they want more information about it,” said Nicole Patterson, principal analyst at Leatherhead Food Research. “When we asked consumers about what means of communication [they’d prefer to receive such information], 80% said TV documentaries and two-thirds said food programmes and celebrity chefs.”
Patterson was speaking at the February Footprint Forum, held at the US embassy in London. Run in association with the US Department of Agriculture, the event provided an insight into GM technology, as well as consumer and political acceptance.
According to research by the Food Standards Agency, 26% of consumers have not even heard of GM, while 30% “know a little bit” about it. In fact, just “one or two per cent” volunteer GM as a piece of information they want when considering whether to buy a product. Much more important are price, nutrition and sell-by dates, said FSA head of novel foods Sandy Lawrie.
Opening the conference, Jack Bobo, senior adviser for biotechnology at the US State Department, suggested more should be done to communicate with consumers about GM. He said the technology has been largely “demonised” but it has “delivered” for farmers and food security. Caterers and retailers had a vital role to play. He added:
“Transparency is important. It’s important consumers know that poultry is fed GM soya – the average person doesn’t know these things. It would be great if the industry did a better job of telling the public about these things.
“Food companies always want cheaper inputs and fewer pesticides [which GM crops have delivered], but they don’t like controversy – that’s why they choose not to put these [GM] products on their shelves,” he added.
While the rest of the world embraces biotech crops and foods, Europe largely remains a GM-free zone. However, Bobo pointed out that Europe is one of the largest importers of GM crops in the world – its livestock industry relies heavily on GM soy for instance, something consumers are largely unaware of, he said.
The issue of sourcing GM-free livestock feed is a big concern, especially among poultry farmers. This will be covered as part of the full report and analysis in March’s Footprint.