Public concern over genetically modified foods has eased over the past decade, according to a new poll.
A quarter of Britons are now unconcerned about GM foods, compared with 17% nearly a decade ago, says a British Science Association (BSA) survey.
But the research found that the public has less of an appetite for introducing GM foods, as 27% believe they should not be encouraged – a drop from 52% of people who said they agreed with it in a 1996 survey.
However, a total of 30% of people do not think the practice should be encouraged, the BSA said.
Roland Jackson, chief executive of the BSA, said the survey showed “a pretty high awareness of GM food” and considerable interest in the subject, with two-thirds of respondents interested in it.
Sir Roland said: “This survey suggests that the debate on GM may have moved on as people recognise that it is one set of approaches among many that can contribute to food production.
“Nevertheless it remains important for scientists and policy-makers to understand and incorporate public perspectives as they seek to develop new applications and policies.”
Asked which GM crops they would be happy to see grown in the UK, a total of 64% said they would theoretically be supportive of rice crops with built-in vitamin A being produced.
A total of 58% said they would be happy to see wheat crops grown with a pheromone that would reduce the need for pesticides, while 28% said they would be supportive of a scheme that delayed the ripening of melons to give them a longer shelf life.
In recent weeks, British ministers have been warning that the benefits of GM foods should not be overlooked in the food security challenge.
In January, farming minister Jim Paice told farmers that GM crops could massively help food production. Labour’s shadow environment minister, Mary Creagh has called for more money for GM research.
The government’s chief scientific advisor John Beddington said he saw no reason for opposing GM crops, provided they were rigorously checked for their impact on health and the environment.
Last month, DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman said growing drought-resistant GM crops could be part of a solution to the drought in south-east England.
However, the German chemical giant BASF recently announced that it will move its headquarters from Germany to the US and stop developing GM crops targeted at the European market.
However, Tom Macmillan, of the Soil Association, said that fluctuations in the figures made it impossible to discern any long-term trends in public opinion.
But he added: “I think there is an element of people getting bored with the issue. But I don’t think that the way for scientists and policy-makers to respond to that is to say, ‘Everybody’s bored of this; let’s do it anyway’.”
Pete Riley, of anti-GM campaign group GM Freeze, said: “This shows that the government and the pro-GM lobby within industry and universities need to have a massive rethink on the direction they are taking agricultural research.”
Four countries – Canada, the US, Brazil and Argentina – grow more than 90% of the world’s GM crops.
More than 80% of GM seeds sold each year are owned and sold by Monsanto.
The GM acreage grew 8% globally last year, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotic Applications, which is funded by GM companies, including Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and CropLife International.
In Europe there are only two GM crops approved for cultivation. The most significant, the pest-resistant (Bt) maize, saw a 20% increase in planted area in 2011 – but it only grows just over 110,oooha.
Some 2,050 people were polled by Populus about their attitude to GM food for the BSA study.
The poll comes as the EU prepares to vote on a Danish-led proposal to allow member states to ban the cultivation of GM crops on a country-by-country basis.
• Have your say on GM foods on our community forum