GMO backlash is hard to swallow

Providing the consumer with what he or she wants, at a profit, is the foundation of sound marketing. Which is what makes genetically modified foods (GMOs) so fascinating, because they seem incapable of fulfilling either condition.

UK food manufacturers, after a period of anguished internal debate, have now reached the same conclusion with devastating consequences for the GMO phenomenon. According to a Greenpeace survey, substantially confirmed by our own research, not one of the top 30 food manufacturers will now support the use of GM ingredients in their products.

Now, if the food manufacturers refuse to buy the products, retailers are reluctant to stock them (which they are) and consumers don’t want to eat them, the future doesn’t look too rosy for GMOs. Government “enforcer” Jack Cunningham can say what he likes about the blessings of food technology – it won’t make a blind bit of difference to the iron laws of the market.

But isn’t all this just a little simplistic and, frankly, Luddite? After all, it’s not simply the chemical and pharmaceutical companies, such as Monsanto and Zeneca, which have invested heavily in GMO product development. Not so long ago, the food manufacturers themselves were pretty gung-ho on the subject, and poured millions into new product development, believing they had found a sure-fire means of boosting margins.

Sure enough, if you probe the present scepticism a little, you will find an Old Believer lurking beneath. There are two main reasons for this inner equivocation. The first is the privately-held conviction that the British public is being rather silly in its point-blank refusal to sample the goods. Eventually, it will be brought round, once the hysterical media circus has disbanded. After all, look at BSE…

Well yes, look at BSE. True, beef sales have just about caught up with their pre-panic levels. But the abiding impression left by the crisis is that scientists, the modern equivalent of the medieval priesthood, are just as capable of lying as everyone else. Ironically, of course, credible scientific proof of the innocuous role of GMOs in the food chain will be vital in changing the public’s mind. So far all the proof, such as it is (Monarch butterflies et al), points in the opposite direction.

The second is a pragmatic, commercial concern. Given that America, the breadbasket of the world and home to Monsanto, is a decade down the GMO trail (apparently without any nasty side-effects) isn’t the genetic processing of foods irreversible? Won’t it therefore be horrifically expensive to sieve out the genetically modified from the non-modified? And then again, what of the disagreeable prospect of transatlantic trade sanctions if Britain and other European Union countries persist in their perverse distaste for GMOs?

Whichever way it’s looked at, prospective profits in the European GMO sector don’t amount to a hill of beans.

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