microscope scientist

Consumer confidence in science is fading fast – and the implications for food and drink are huge.

That was the stark warning from Professor Dame Anne Glover at the LEAF annual conference in London on Tuesday (3 November).

In a presentation on the future of food and farming, the former chief scientific adviser to the European Commission warned about a growing gulf between producers, government and consumers on the benefits and risks of science in food production.

Blaming the media comes easy, but confusing coverage and scaremongering headlines – particularly in the tabloids – were a big part of the problem, Glover argued, citing the recent ‘bacon causes cancer’ hoo-hah as a powerful case in point. There remained much work to be done to educate consumers – and journalists – on how to make sense of scientific research and think rationally about risk, she said.

But the issue runs deeper. Research shared by Glover shows many Europeans are now suspicious of science and scientists overall. In some member states, more than 50% of the public agree with the statement “because of their knowledge, scientists can be dangerous”.

Europe has a proud scientific tradition, so such attitudes should set off alarm bells – and the implications for food and farming could be especially dramatic. Global demand for food is set to increase 70% by 2050, so producing more with less has to be a key priority, according to Glover. Yet the European debate about technologies that might help achieve this – particularly GM – keeps going round in circles and is mired in confusion.

The fact that both anti and pro-GM voices have recently claimed victory in the European GM debate, which has seen 19 out of 28 member states ban use of GM crops, was just one example from the “confusing world of GM”, Glover said.

Glover herself is not confused about where she stands on the issue. “I can say to you with certainty that GM technology is safe,” she said yesterday though she was keen to reject media suggestions she was “pro-GM”. GM wasn’t a silver bullet but “one tool” that should be available to producers.

Of course, there are many on the opposite side of the debate who would claim an equally strong case against GM, as The Grocer explored in a recent feature.

Despite her own convictions, the key message from Glover, however, wasn’t so much on whether GM should or shouldn’t be used. It was perfectly legitimate for citizens and governments to decide they didn’t want GM, she said. But they should be clear about why – and not just point the finger at the science. Say “GM technology is safe but our citizens don’t want it” instead of raising unwarranted questions about the science, Glover argued.

It’s a powerful point that would have gone down well with producers worried about not having access to promising technology. And Glover is right to call on ministers to be clear on what informs their policy decisions, and the role science plays.

But not everyone sceptical of GM is so because of irrational “gut feelings” or because they simply don’t like the idea of it. If we are to have a more balanced public discourse about GM (and other scientific advances in food production), more nuanced rhetoric will be needed from all sides.