The Grocer's survey of attitudes to GM foods contains a few surprises. Helen Gregory reports
It is generally assumed that the British public is hostile to genetically modifed foods yet, in an exclusive survey conducted for The Grocer by Nunwood Consulting Omnibus, a third of respondents said they would buy genetically modified food. Despite the acres of media coverage over recent years, three-quarters of the 1,000 consumers we questioned reckoned they did not know enough about the issues and 68% wanted more tests on GM crops in the UK.
We found men were more likely to eat GM food than women (43% compared with 25% of women) while those under the age of 24 were keener on GM food than pensioners (48% compared with 24%); although the over-65s claimed they knew most about the issues. On a socio-demographic level, the ABCs were bigger fans than DEs who confessed to being the least knowledgeable about GMOs.
So is the tide of opinion finally turning? If so, it would be no thanks to the media's reporting which has typically labelled GM food as frankenfood'. Nor has hostility from environmental groups helped its progress, and biotechnology group Monsanto recently admitted that it could take until 2005 to gain regulatory approval in Europe for its products.
The Soil Association continues to issue warnings, including those of unpredictable technology and gene transfer between GM crops and other organisms, while Greenpeace says promises of improved yields and lower costs have failed to materialise. So far the supermarkets have heeded the environmental lobby and removed any trace of GMOs from their food and, in some cases, from animal feed. But Greenpeace is not convinced the retailers are doing enough and assistant GM campaigner Ben Ayliffe says he believes retailers could obtain reasonably priced non-GM soya.
"Consumers have made it clear that they don't want to eat animals that have been fed on GM food ­ it's up to these companies to make sure that's the case."
The European Parliament is considering legislation that would require manufacturers to label products that were derived from GM crops, regardless of whether GMOs were detectable. The Food Standards Agency and the Food and Drink Federation, however, have attacked the proposals as "ridiculous and unworkable".
But in 1996 it was a very different picture: supermarkets were only too keen to stock a paste clearly labelled as made with GM tomatoes. It caused little concern among consumers and even sold better than the normal paste. It was competitively priced and on the market at a time when most people did not know of all the issues.
By 2000, media coverage had sparked public distrust to such an extent that the paste was consigned to the shelves of supermarket history. Since then, there have been many reports on the subject, but no agreement over the environmental impact or safety of GM crops and food.

Whitehall officials sound alarm
Recently the government heeded a call by the Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission for a public debate. This will begin in the autumn, end in June and is a debate which DEFRA secretary of state Margaret Becket says will be a "genuinely open and balanced discussion on GM".
She says: "The government wants to provide people with the opportunity to debate the issues openly and reach their own judgements."
However, Whitehall officials have warned that those with strong views will shout loudest and whether public opinion has shifted, or not, will be undetectable. Greenpeace believes the government is failing to put up enough cash and failing to do justice to the debate by denying it the time it needs.And, Ayliffe says: "Unless the government agrees to act on the results, there's no point."
There is unlikely to be any agreement short term, but the debate could help to inform the public, which is what our survey shows they want