Consumer concerns about GM technology are reducing and there is a growing acceptance that it has an important role to play in improving global food security.
Addressing the Sentry Conference at Chilford Hall, Cambridgeshire, Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council, said research had shown that, while 49% of consumers were concerned about GM, some 40% were not.
Furthermore, four times as many believed GM could help boost food output and counter adverse weather than believed it could not. “Public opinion is shifting and the media have moved a long way too,” he said.
There were still many myths about GMs, such as the claim that they were just for large farmers, or that they could not deliver yield increases, or that only the biotech companies made any money from GMs.
These were all dismissed by Dr Little, who said the re-uptake rate among farmers who used GMs was huge. “I’ve yet to meet a farmer who would try something and go back to it again if it did not work.”
There were also benefits in food safety, with GM maize in Spain having almost zero incidence of mycotoxin, and the Indians developing a tomato with a 45-day shelf life. Fusarium-resistant wheat was also being developed by Syngenta.
But EU farmers were still denied access to these technologies by the tortuously slow approvals process and no new GM products had been approved for cultivation for 12 years.
Several products had been approved for import and use and Dr Little suggested it was up to supermarkets to put GM products on their shelves and “allow consumers to vote with their wallets”.
This view was endorsed by Patrick Wall, professor of public health at University College Dublin, who said the general public trusted the supermarkets. The recession provided an opportunity to tell people that GM technology has a role to play in providing safe, affordable food.
But Waitrose boss Mark Price said consumers were still basically against GM, even though there was now a more reasoned debate.
There were two big issues with regards to the acceptability of GMs, he added. The first was to be able to guarantee there would be no cross contamination for those who preferred not to grow GMs.
The second was the issue of intellectual property rights. It was a concern that just two or three biotech companies could end up effectively controlling the food chain.
But Iowa agriculture secretary Bill Northey insisted that co-existence had been proven to work in the USA. And, as for intellectual property rights, he noted that the first GM products would be coming off-patent in the next few years, allowing more competition into the market.