GMO lobbyists think EU concerns about GMOs have gone away – but that's only because GMO ingredients are largely not present in our food
Based on the findings of a new Eurobarometer survey, GMO lobbyists and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have convinced themselves that Europeans are no longer too concerned about GMO foods. But we at GMWatch believe they are deluding themselves.
In an article called "Most Europeans hardly care about GMOs", the GMO industry lobby website gminfo.eu says, "A special Eurobarometer survey report on food safety was published this month. It shows once again that the regularly promoted narrative that '90% of Europeans are against GMOs' is bogus. ‘Genetically modified ingredients in food and drink’ are reported as having a comparatively low level of concern associated with them (27%) – number 8 of the 15 specified concerns on the list. Concern has more than halved compared to the last similar survey, published in 2010, when GMOs where reported as the 4th highest ranking concern (66%). Of all the issues of concern in the survey, genome editing is the one with the lowest concern (4%) and awareness (22%). Three issues surface most frequently in most Member States: antibiotics, hormones and steroids (44%), pesticide residues in food (39%) and food additives (36%)."
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also states, "Europeans seem less concerned than they were before about issues such as GMOs".
However, this is a misinterpretation of the findings of the Eurobarometer report.
First, over a quarter of people being concerned about GM ingredients in foods or drinks is not a low figure. And while concern about this topic has fallen by over half since the last survey in 2010, this is arguably not because people no longer care about GMOs, but because they rightly assume that food manufacturers in the EU have virtually excluded GM ingredients from human food so there is no need to worry about this aspect of food safety. Almost all GMOs in the EU end up in animal feed, where the GMO label on the feed packets is not seen by the end consumer of the meat, dairy, or eggs from the GM-fed animal.
The exclusion of GMO ingredients from human food was prompted in the late 1990s by the scientific findings of Dr Arpad Pusztai, a researcher based at the Rowett Institute in Scotland. In a government-funded study, Dr Pusztai found that GM potatoes harmed the health of rats.
In the wake of the furore that followed, the British supermarkets, led by Iceland Foods, quickly announced that they were banning GMO ingredients from their own-brand products. The movement spread to the rest of Europe. To this day, GMO ingredients are hard to find in the supermarkets' own-brand human food products. They are largely restricted to US-origin junk foods, such as cheap chocolate.
So Europeans have had two decades of living in a climate in which human foods are unlikely to contain GMOs. Moreover, thanks to the GMO regulations that were enacted following the Pusztai study, GMO ingredients have to be labelled, so those who wish to avoid eating them can do so.
To conclude from the Eurobarometer figures that that Europeans are more accepting of GMOs than they used to be is equivalent to saying that people are more accepting of lead in paint or BSE (mad cow) prions in beef than they used to be. Such claims would be absurd. The truth is that these issues are no longer as concerning as they used to be because people believe that the problems have gone away.
This situation of relative comfort will change if the GMO lobby gets its way and is allowed to sneak gene-edited ingredients into foods without safety checks or labelling. If they succeed, we predict that concerns will begin to mount about "hidden GMOs". The Eurobarometer survey finds that concern about genome editing is currently very low, but that's undoubtedly because, as the survey also finds, awareness of this new technology is also very low. Indeed, in our experience, a lot of people either have not heard of it or are unsure of exactly what it is. They certainly don't yet know that the GMO industry is busy "editing" the genomes of their food crops and livestock animals.
The GMO lobby’s vigorous efforts to ensure that the resulting products go unlabelled indicates the extent of their concern about people cottoning on to the far-reaching changes they aim to make to food production.
Variability between countries
The Eurobarometer survey also found that concern about GMOs in food or drinks is very variable between EU countries. It is highest in Lithuania (45%), Bulgaria and Greece (both 42%) and Latvia (41%), while respondents express the lowest levels of concern in Malta (12%) and Finland (13%). This is hardly a reassuring finding for the GMO industry.
Another finding of the survey counters the GMO lobby meme that the better educated people are, the less likely they are to be hostile to GM foods. The survey found that the longer respondents stayed in education, the more likely they were to be concerned about most food safety topics – including GMOs. For example, 30% of those who ended education at the age of 20 or above are concerned about GM ingredients in food or drinks, compared with 19% of those who left education by the age of 15.
The GMO lobby will not welcome this finding, since they have persuaded themselves that "education improves attitudes" about GM foods. By "education", of course, they mean the type of one-sided propaganda that they themselves produce via outlets such as the Cornell Alliance for Science.
Overall, the GMO industry and its lobbyists need to learn from their bitter experiences when they first tried to foist unlabelled and untested GM foods on Europeans back in the 1990s. People now want more, not less, transparency about how their food is produced, and no industry can succeed in the long term on the basis of hiding the truth.