Genetically modified foods were on everyone’s minds a few years ago. Many major food companies adopted non-GM policies and no GM crops are currently grown commercially in the UK. So why is GM rising up again?
Problems of global food security, combined with the need to produce food in a way that minimises environmental impact mean that new ways of producing food are being considered.
This has been termed ‘sustainable intensification’ – i.e. more food with less impact. So, the role that GM crops could play is becoming a hot topic again.
Which? has always taken a neutral position on GM. We’ve focused on making sure that any GM products that come on to the market are safe and you have a meaningful choice over whether to eat them or not.
How European law affects GM
Over the past few years, GM legislation has been updated. Now, any crop that’s to be grown or any food product that’s to be marketed has to be assessed for safety by the European Food Safety Authority and then given approval by EU Member States.
This has to be done on an EU-wide basis. They can take into account social and economic aspects as well as the science. But the European Commission has now proposed changes which would allow Member States to unilaterally decide whether to approve the growing of GM crops or not.
GM ingredients also have to be labelled, but there’s an exemption for accidental contamination of food which means that products can contain up to 0.9% GM ingredients without having to be labelled. Controls over organic food also state that it is incompatible with GM production.
But GM raises many questions which are difficult to deal with through regulation. Issues such as who controls what we eat, the role of multi-national companies and how far we should ‘tamper with nature’ have become wrapped up with concerns about risk and lack of choice.
What consumers think about GM
A recent survey we carried out showed that 62% of people are still concerned about eating GM ingredients, 30% aren’t concerned and 11% don’t know. Seven in ten still think it’s important that retailers have policies not allowing GM ingredients in food and feed.
This matches our previous consumer research which found that many people haven’t been convinced about the benefits of GM foods and don’t think that enough is known about the long-term consequences, although they aren’t necessarily completely opposed to it.
So, is it time for a re-think? Do we need to be more open to GM?
We should certainly look at GM, along with other options for producing more food, more sustainably, to see what best addresses the real problems we face. But rather than a polarised debate where, on the one hand GM is held up as the answer to world hunger and on the other it’s going to end civilisation, we need to focus on what all the different options are and the challenges they bring.