Will britain learn to love gm food?

GM food has been a controversial subject over the past few years, both at home and across the rest of Europe, but research suggests attitudes in Britain are softening

There has been much discussion about genetically modified (GM) foods and whether it is right to “meddle” with nature. The debate is still raging and while opinion across Europe differs, new research shows that British consumers have the most open attitudes towards GM foods.

The TGI Europa survey shows that French consumers have the strongest anti-GM views and this has not changed in the past couple of years. In Germany, the public mood is also quite strongly opposed to GM food products, although there is some evidence that this stance is softening. Spain, on the other hand, has a similar proportion of consumers to Britain who are undecided on the subject. However, of those consumers who have taken a view on the issue, more tend to be against it than in Britain.

There is some evidence that British consumers are starting to come off the fence, but the change is very slow. Over recent years the number of people who broadly agree that they would never buy food that has been genetically modified has changed by just one per cent. Those who disagree and say that they may buy such products has remained stable.

The strong anti-GM feeling is mostly among older people, although the research shows that this seems to be declining. Two years ago, consumers over the age of 65 were three times more likely to be strongly against GM food than those under 20. The latest data shows that this is changing, with younger consumers starting to turn against buying GM foods. It remains to be seen whether the relatively small surge in anti-GM feeling among the younger age group will be maintained and will make up for the loss of numbers in the older age groups.

The fact that increasing numbers of younger people are now living away from home means that the younger lifestage groups are being put into positions where they can make their own decisions on such matters. Data from Youth TGI shows that the youngest age groups have a more negative view of GM foods and that this declines as they grow older and, presumably, as their control over food consumption increases.

There are some notable differences among the attitudes of adults around the country. The most firmly held anti-GM beliefs are found among consumers in the south-west of England. The areas that appear to be most pro-GM are the North-west and Wales, while those who seem least able to form a view tend to live in the North or Yorkshire and Humberside. These differences can be attributed to factors such as differing age profiles and local sensitivities.

The research also looks at respondents’ attitudes to other food issues. Consumers who have the most negative views about GM food are also four times more likely to believe that it is worth paying more for organic produce. They are also nearly three times as likely to be willing to pay more for food that does not contain artificial additives.

On the other hand, the more pro-GM consumers are the most likely to eat takeaway meals on a frequent basis and are also the most likely to indulge themselves with food that they know is not good for them.

In terms of actual buying behaviour, there is little doubt that attitudes to GM food at least demonstrate high correlation if not influence. Those who are most strongly anti-GM are 43 per cent more likely than average to buy fresh poultry and 19 per cent more likely to buy fresh meat from a butcher. Even frozen and prepared or pre-packed meat is more likely to come from the butchers than is the case with the pro-GM consumers. Anti-GM consumers are also 33 per cent more likely to buy their fresh fish from a fishmonger, 38 per cent more likely to buy fresh vegetables from a greengrocer and 29 per cent more likely to buy fresh fruit from the same source.

Of course there are some major conflicts going on in the minds of the most anti-GM consumers but again, this is likely to be related to their older-than-average age profile. They are strongly pro-British in their buying habits and more likely to be cost-conscious. However, neither of these two considerations sit comfortably with ethical shopping.

These consumers are also likely to be concerned with issues about wasteful packaging and this conflicts with their buying organic products. To help consumers differentiate between organic and non-organic, such products usually have packaging and labelling that marks them out. These conflicts show that their views do not always reflect their actual behaviour.

These conflicts mean that anti-GM consumers are willing to overlook some issues in order to live up to some of their principals. The feelings of British consumers do reflect the attitude of the Government, which recently gave the go-ahead to trial GM maize crops. While there is a reluctance towards GM foods at the moment, its seems that a slow and soft approach can lead to acceptance in the long term.

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