Europe has had a traditionally anti-GM stance, and proposals to allow Member States more flexibility to restrict or ban GM crops could create supply risks and inflated food prices on the continent.
Pressure points in the food chain are already emerging in the UK. Morrisons recently followed Asda’s lead by relaxing its GM policy to allow poultry farmers to use GM feed like soy. Some 70% of the world’s soy crop is now thought to be genetically modified and Morrisons said its GM-free policy had become “increasingly difficult and costly to maintain”.
The Soil Association said this was “a huge step in the wrong direction”, while campaigners GM Freeze insisted the public remained vehemently opposed to GM.
But as more and more of the world embraces GM, the cost of sourcing GM-free ingredients coupled with increasing problems around effective labelling could see the food industry further test UK consumer attitudes to the technology.
Bayer Cropscience spokesman Julian Little said: “The UK is very sensitive to the global food supply chain because we have a very low self-sufficiency level in basic commodities compared with even our near neighbours such as France or Germany.
“As a result, we feel that pressure earlier. Are we at crisis point? No, of course not. But the fact that Morrisons chose to follow Asda’s lead … is a clear indication that the retailers recognise that the threats to their supply of food ingredients is ever present.”
The Crop Protection Association chief executive Dominic Dyer added: “The scale of GM planting has increased so much that if the EU continues on this path [to largely reject the technology] it will make food more expensive and make it more difficult for manufacturers to meet labelling requirements.”
Dyer said public opinion is changing. In a survey by the British Science Association in March, 27% of those questioned agree or strongly agree that the production of GM food should be encouraged, while 30% disagreed or strongly disagreed.
Acceptance varied depending on the crop and the potential benefits. For instance, some 58% of consumers said they would support GM wheat if it reduced pesticide use.
Last week, trials of GM wheat that is bred to repel aphids sparked an online war between scientists and campaigners. Fearing the crops will cross with other plants, a group of activists calling themselves ‘Take the Flour Back’ have called on the public to join them in a mass “decontamination” of the site on May 27.
The potential conflict prompted an emotional, and unprecedented, video appeal from the lead scientists. However, the campaigners are refusing to back down. In a lengthy response the group highlighted that leading figures from the bread industry have also come out in strong opposition.
Generally, food manufacturers remain tight-lipped about their willingness to accept GM foods. However, industry body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is backing a rethink on the controversial technology.
FDF president Jim Moseley claimed recently that “surely the time is right for us to have the debate about new technologies both here and in Europe”.
Barbara Gallani, FDF’s director of food safety and science, was also confident that the time had come to reopen an “unbiased debate” about GM. In response to Moseley’s comments, she told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “We are concerned that the current situation in the EU is unsustainable.
“And we believe that EU governments and regulatory authorities should base their decisions regarding GM on safety and science, acknowledging and supporting the stringent assessment and approval procedures already in place in Europe.”