9 July 1999

Industry needs to convince public of GM crop benefits

By Isabel Davies

THE biotechnology industry has been told to find better ways of reassuring the public about genetically modified crops if it hopes to turn the tide of opposition.

At a conference organised by the Institute of Grocery Distribution in London this week, consumer representatives criticised the way GM crop supporters had tackled the issue.

The success of biotechnology in the UK and Europe will ultimately depend on the consumer, and GM crop supporters needed to focus more on answering the questions raised by customers, they said.

"Those who believe in the benefits [of GM food] need to do a lot more to get their point across," said Tony Gilland, director of Open Dialogue, a company that provides advice on handling health and environmental panics.

Building confidence was about more than emphasising the precautions put in place, he added.

Consumers might be more willing to accept modified crops if they could see the benefits coming to them, said Diane McCrea, an independent consultant on food and consumer affairs.

According to a recent survey only 1% of the population believes that GM food offers any benefits.

But the view that there could eventually be a place for GM crops was backed by IGD research director, Jon Woolven. "Opinion could swing decisively if we see more GM products that offer consumer benefits," he said, adding that he believed it would be hard for biotechnology companies to win the debate through vague promises of the future which largely focused on farmer benefits.

But Barbara Saunders consumer consultant and former member of MAFFs Food Advisory Committee said she was less convinced that the public could be won over. "It will be very difficult indeed to change the mood of the public. There is a climate of considerable mistrust that I believe will continue for the foreseeable future," she said.

She explained that public disagreements between the scientific community had fostered concern and uncertainty and consumers had little trust in the government because of a "poor food safety record".

Des DSouza, biotechnology communications manager for AgrEvo, said the industry had to accept that it had failed to get its message across.

"The activists have been getting much more air time. We have not been proactive enough on this issue," he admitted.

lMAFF has produced new guidance notes detailing the requirements for labelling foods containing genetically modified soya and maize. Announcing the publication of the guidelines, junior farm minister Jeff Rooker said: "They provide clear guidance to businesses on the requirements of the legislation and should assist local authorities in enforcing these rules." &#42