Need for educational programme on GM food
IF a recent a survey on food is to be believed we are producing BMWs and Mercedes, when what consumers really want are Hyuandis and Kias. These are perfectly good cars and will do exactly the same as their more costly counterparts – which were traditionally much more profitable, on the basis of the old adage that big cars were the way to big profits.
When it comes to food, thanks to quality assurance and farm to fork links, we are producing a premium product. But a survey by the Food Standards Agency has shown that in these tough times consumers put one thing above all others when it comes to priorities. That is price – which is understandable when incomes are being squeezed, thanks to costs rising, when incomes are, at best, static.
There are now record numbers of products on promotion, as supermarkets fight for markets share; we have seen the squeeze on liquid milk prices, as shops battle for customers with low cost basic products. As a result while people may like to know about the provenance of their food, when it comes to the supermarket shelf price decides what goes in the trolley. Organic food has been one of the victims of this trend, but it is also reflected in other products. With beef, for example, grading and payments are focussed on high quality prime cuts – when what the market really wants is minced steak that can compete head on with chicken.
After price comes health, in the shape of concerns about fat and salt levels – but far behind are issues such as pesticide use and genetically modified (GM) crops. This suggests that while these may be high on the list of concerns of celebrity chefs and food writers they are of little relevance to everyday shoppers, who ultimately decide what does and does not sell. In many ways this is encouraging, since it confirms that people make rational choices. They are right, especially in a recession, to be worried about price; they are also right, given levels of obesity, to be concerned about the fat and salt content of the food they buy for themselves and their family.
The question this raises is why then is GM such a controversial issue in Brussels. The playing out of politics, not least by France, has frustrated decision making in this area. This latest report, albeit based on UK consumers, suggests politicians are not listening to the majority, but to a vocal minority and the views of some newspapers opposed to GM food, regardless of the science. Based on what this report is saying the European Commission needs to put its muscle behind an educational programme on the benefits – and disadvantages – of GM food. It also needs to produce some positive role models prepared to defend the science. This would certainly be a lot cheaper than spending more years trying to protect consumers from technology that is the norm elsewhere, and which it seems may not be as big an issue for people as widely supposed.
The European Commission is fond of surveys of consumer opinions, and as a prelude to a new CAP it could do worse than take the UK Food Standards Agency questions and have its research agency, Eurobarometer, check across all 27 member states what issues really are important to people. The answers might well come as a surprise to policy makers, and indeed MEPs and many farm ministers.
One person calling for a major change of thinking on GM is the EU’s most senior scientific adviser. She is Professor Anne Glover, who says GM crops are no riskier than their conventionally farmed equivalents. “There is no substantiated case of any adverse impact on human health, animal health or environmental health. I would be confident in saying there is no more risk in eating GM food than conventionally farmed food,” she said, adding that GM must be explored to head off the increasing scarcity of energy and other resources, which create competition for land use. It seems, based on the FSA study, that the majority of consumers might well agree with that view. An interesting sign of how things have changed is that the issue of least concern to UK consumers was BSE – proof that a few years make an enormous difference – and further evidence that GM can equally become a non-issue with time.
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