Genetically modified food is moving up the agenda again. Debates on food sustainability and the challenge to produce more food with less environmental impact have put the focus back on whether there is a growing need for GM crops.
The European Commission is also looking at whether the European Union’s zero-tolerance policy for low-level presence of unapproved GM varieties in food imports should be relaxed - we saw this happen last year with animal feed. This is despite the fact that pre-market risk assessment and approval has been a central pillar of the EU’s approach to regulating GM products.
Here in the UK, most retailers still have non-GM policies and our research indicates that the majority of consumers want it to stay this way. A Which? survey last year found 71% of people think it’s important that retailers have policies that they don’t sell foods that contain GM ingredients. Seventy per cent of people think it’s important they have policies that don’t allow GM ingredients in animal feed. Over 60% of consumers have told us they are concerned about eating GM ingredients in foods.
There is no doubt that the food chain is facing unprecedented challenges - increasing global demand, the impact of climate change and how to mitigate it, volatile prices as well as obesity and diet-related disease. So we need to be clearer about what the government’s focus on sustainable intensification will mean.
Earlier this year, Which? organised a number of discussion groups to debate food sustainability. The outcomes of those discussions showed that some people are fundamentally opposed to GM, while others would be more accepting if there were clear benefits. But this acceptance comes with conditions, including clear labelling and robust safety checks.
The likelihood is, however, that discussions about the future of food production will focus too much on the technology, rather than defining the wider issues that concern producers, retailers and consumers. The case has to be made for why GM is necessary and in what circumstances.
The issue is often seen as one of public education, but this is short-sighted. As is the suggestion that EU approval processes need to be relaxed to make it easier for companies to take GM products to market. This approach would alienate and undermine consumer confidence.
The way forward lies in ensuring there is a much wider public debate about the issues facing food production, the potential solutions, and where GM fits within this. Consumer acceptability is key. If people don’t want to buy products because of the way they are produced, there won’t be a market.