Has consumer opinion of GM modified?

With two weeks to go until the EU referendum I wasn’t expecting an evening debate on genetically modified (GM) foods to have people bashing the door down at the Royal Society’s Edinburgh branch. The usual suspects – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the like – would certainly turn up, or so I thought.

In a quick show of hands before proceedings got underway, about 80% said they supported the use of the controversial technology. By the end of the evening it was closer to 95%. Where were all the naysayers?

Polling on GM foods has died away in recent years. A 2014 survey by YouGov showed that four in 10 British adults still hold negative views of GM food, with few feeling more positively than they recall 12 months ago. Meanwhile, a Eurobarometer survey all the way back in 2010 revealed an “overall suspicion” of GM foods amongst Europeans – 70% agreed with the statement that GM food is “fundamentally unnatural”, whilst 61% said the concept made them feel “uneasy”. In fact, 59% thought they are not safe.

It would be interesting to find out if that attitude has changed in the last couple of years? Today people are much more aware of the challenges facing our food systems, for instance. As the International Resource Panel (IRP) noted in its 164 page assessment entitled “Food Systems and Natural Resources”: “Current food systems are not delivering food security and healthy food for everyone nor are they sustainably using the limited natural resource inputs.”

Does that mean the door is now open for GM? That’s the question, in a round about way, the Royal Society put to us last week in the following scenario:

“It is the year 2090. The climate is changing. In these new environmental conditions, traditional and land-based agricultural methods do not provide enough food to ensure that human life on earth is sustained. [There is] 30% of land available for agriculture. You have one billion pounds to invest in a course of action that you think could best provide a solution to overcome this challenge to food security.”

A billion quid in 2090 won’t be worth much. However, I looked down the list of seven options, which included: turning over all available land, including forests, to farming; encouraging everyone to eat vegan diets to reduce the impact of the mat and dairy industry on land consumption; taking steps to reduce overall population growth; and (of course) using GM techniques to produce higher yield crops and crops that can grow in harsher conditions.

Forced to choose which of those to go with first, GM might seem to be one of the most palatable (though it’s worth noting that reducing waste wasn’t on the list). The technology has potential, certainly, but even then we don’t really know if people will buy into it. Indeed, we seem to know much more about their meat-eating habits than their opinions on biotechnology these days.

The Royal Society didn’t offer any further insight, not least because the panel consisted entirely of GM advocates. It was very much a case of preaching to the converted.

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