G enetically modified foods have sparked much controversy in the UK over the past decade. Trial crops of GM potatoes have been destroyed by activists as recently as this year and the major supermarkets have long shunned the so-called 'Frankenfoods' fearing consumer backlash.

Yet, in the wake of the crop damage caused by this year's extreme weather, GM crops are being touted as a possible salvation. Less susceptible to bad weather and disease than their 'normal' counterparts, they are already being planted in their thousands across Europe.

But what about here? Will UK farmers follow suit? And, more importantly, is the great British public ready for GM? Will what was once antipathy and is now arguably apathy turn into acceptance?

The US remains the biggest market for GM. But in Europe, the amount of farmland devoted to GM crops will reach 100,000 hectares for the first time this year. Spain will account for most of this, but they are also being grown in Germany and France and the market is expected to grow exponentially.

"Two years ago France planted 500 hectares of GM crops," says Little. "Last year it was 5,000. This year it will be 20,000. They are also being planted in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Portugal, although not in massive amounts."

The UK government is in favour of further exploring the potential for GM and says there could be some commercial cultivation of GM crops as early as 2009. "The sensible approach is to consider GM crops on a case-by-case basis, provided the evidence shows they are safe for human health and the environment," Defra secretary of state Hilary Benn has told The Grocer. "Ultimately it will be for farmers and consumers to decide whether they want GM products."

Late last year, chemicals manufacturer BASF was given permission by the government to plant blight-resistant GM potatoes at two trial sites in England. This has not been without incident and only one trial, in Cambridge, has so far been successful (see over).

Chris Wilson, corporate communications manager at BASF, acknowledges the problems that it has had with protestors but says that their actions do not reflect the general public's feelings towards GM.

Consumers are becoming more open-minded, he believes. "We're not saying there is overwhelming support for GM but we think there is a fairly large share of people out there willing to try it," he says.

Consumer attitudes towards GM could be shifting, suggests data from the Food Standards Agency. Its study in February found that just 4% of shoppers looked for information about GM on labels and only 3% spontaneously said they were concerned about GM ingredients in foods.

New figures from TNS show that only 3% of consumers are particularly concerned about GM, down from 11% in 1999. Of far more concern are issues such as global warming and bird flu, cited by 38% and 11% of respondents respectively.

Others are less convinced. With the national press always ready to stoke people's fears about Frankenfoods, demand remains pretty low, says an Asda spokesman.

"The feeling is that consumers have not really moved on from where they were two or three years ago," he says. "There are still concerns. Until we have people demanding it, saying they want it, it is just not going to be an issue for us."

It's much the same line from the British Retail Consortium. "All the indications we have are that consumers are not yet prepared to purchase products with GM components within them. Unless a majority of consumers are content to consume GM ingredients, then it is not going to happen," says a spokesman.

That said, many may be consuming GM foods without realising it. In the UK a handful of GM foods have been approved for use - soya, tomato purée and some forms of maize - and, despite the UK retailers' stance against GM, products that contain these ingredients can and are being bought in UK supermarkets.

"Most supermarkets already sell some foods with GM ingredients in them," says Dr Julian Little, chairman of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council. "What the supermarkets talk about is just their own label products, so they are muddying the waters. The reality is GM products are around and people are buying them and do not appear to be keeling over as a result."

Products that contain GM derivatives sold in the UK include Schwartz Bacon Flavour Bits Soya Pieces, which includes ingredients manufactured from GM soya and corn and which is sold in Sainsbury's, and a vegetarian sushi sold in Waitrose, which includes Inari made from GM soya. Some vegetable oils that use GM soya are also available on the market, says Little.

What is often forgotten, says Wilson, is that the biotech industry does not need a sudden about-face by consumers to get a return on its investment. It works to long timescales - the blight-resistant potato is unlikely to be on the market for another decade for instance - so even if the arguments are only won gradually it will be good enough.

Those who are pro-GM believe that public opinion may be close to tipping point in favour of GM. However, such claims are dismissed as mere sabre-rattling by the anti-GM lobby. "The idea that anything has changed is rubbish. You get a flourish of hype from the GM industry pretty regularly," says Lord Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association.

Clare Oxborrow, food campaigner with Friends of the Earth, adds that take-up even in Europe remains low. "Within Europe, Spain is really the only country that is doing GM on a significant scale - in its case GM maize," she says.

Both are adamant that consumers are as anti-GM as ever. But with so little choice of GM foods at present, it's difficult to know what consumers really think, says Helen Farrier, chief science and regulatory affairs adviser at the NFU. "At the moment there is no way of guessing whether a consumer would choose a GM version of a product because it is not there on the shelves," she says.

That may not be the case for much longer. With more US products, including well-known brands, already using GM ingredients, and European farmers also making the switch, it will become harder and harder for consumers to avoid GM products.

Whether this will eventually lead to acceptance by the British public it is too early to say and biotech companies still have a way to go to convince people to fully trust GM. But the tipping point in favour of GM could be just around the corner.nThe GM timeline

1983 The first genetically modified plant, a tobacco plant resistant to antibiotics, is developed in the US

1992 The phrase 'Frankenfood' is coined by Paul Lewis, an English professor at Boston College in the US

1994 The first GM food, the Flavr Savr tomato, is approved in the US

1996 GM tomato paste is approved in the UK but later removed from sale

1998 The first GM labelling rules are introduced in the UK to govern the use of GM ingredients in food

1999 The first UK farm-scale trials of GM crops begin. However, the 25 acres of oilseed rape are subsequently destroyed by the farmer following pressure from farm trustees

2000 Honey on sale in supermarkets is found to be contaminated with GM pollen from British crop trials, forcing beekeepers to move their hives. A survey finds nine out of 10 people reject cultivation of GM crops

2004 Activists tear up crop in Loire, France. Environment secretary Margaret Beckett approves commercial planting of GM maize for animal feed

2006 BASF is given permission by the UK government to plant blight-resistant GM potatoes at two trial sites at Derbyshire and Cambridge. Following protests the Derbyshire trial is dropped. Defra says that no GM potato can enter the food chain

Oct 2007 Italy, Poland and Hungary block proposals by Monsanto to test three new GM corn varieties. The EC must now ask government ministers across its 27 member states to give their verdict on whether to permit the trialsthe solution to potato blight ruining crops?

In December 2006 Defra gave approval for German chemical company BASF to conduct five-year trials of a GM potato at two secret locations in England, one in Cambridgeshire, in conjunction with the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, and the other in Derbyshire.

The trials, which are the first GM trials in the UK since 2003, have been met with strong resistance from environmentalists and have been hampered by protests from the outset.

Trials at the Derbyshire site were cancelled in January when the farmer withdrew over fears of reprisals. BASF was then given permission by Defra to conduct another trial of the potato in East Yorkshire instead, but backed down earlier this year, although it says it may use the site in the future.

BASF faced similar problems in February last year when its plans to grow GM potatoes in County Meath, Ireland provoked protests and warnings of sabotage. It eventually postponed the trial.

The company has managed to undertake tests of the crop in Cambridge, but not without issue. The crop was damaged in July after protestors stormed the field.

Trials for this year have ended, but BASF says it will continue with them during next year's potato season.

Despite such public resistance to its research, BASF says that its GM potatoes would be a boon to growers, enabling them to grow disease-free crops and avoid waste. It says potato blight - which develops in warm and humid conditions - annually destroys 20% of the world's potato harvest and its strain of GM potatoes could overcome this problem.

According to BASF, some wild potato plants contain a special gene that gives them an effective defence system against blight whereas modern cultivated potatoes do not have this gene and therefore cannot defend themselves against the fungus because they are no longer able to detect it.

Attempts to transfer this particular ability of wild potatoes back to modern cultivated potatoes using classical breeding techniques have so far been unsuccessful but BASF says biotechnology has solved the problem. Researchers have isolated the first resistance gene of the wild potato by means of genetic engineering and transferred it to the modern potato.

The company predicts its potatoes could be commercially available within the next decade and that with global demand for agricultural products increasing sharply, there will be more GM crops grown across the world that offer new benefits to farmers and consumers.