‘It’s safe – just eat it’ attitude won’t win the pro-GMO lobby any support 

I read a opinion piece recently lambasting the European attitude to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the ignorance about science. The piece said ‘just ignore those 2,000+ studies showing GMOs are safe’ and that any rational person will simply agree with the science and get on about eating GMOs. However, the reality is different.

GMOs might be the biggest advance in producing more food from less resources since the green revolution and it looks like Europe may be moving towards a nation-by-nation basis when it comes to deciding whether or not to allow the growing of GM crops. EU Environmental Ministers recently voted to allow individual countries decide whether or not to ban or allow the growing of genetically modified (GM) crops in their country. If the move to allow EU Member States decide their own rules on the cultivation of GM crops goes ahead, it will, no doubt, see different countries adopt different positions on the subject.

There is also, at the same time, moves towards increased labelling of GM produce in food. Even American consumers want to see labelling of GMOs in their food. A New York Times poll found that over 90% of Americans are in favour of the labelling of GMOs in food. However, how labelling would work remains to be seen. When pretty much 100% of all the protein in animals feeds imported into Ireland are from GM crops, will beef which was fed with GMO grain have to be labelled GMO beef?

So, as it stands, we are all, in effect, indirectly eating GMOs in our food. Our cornflakes are made with GMO grains, our beef if from cattle which were more than likely fed GMO grain and our milk is from dairy cows where were also, more than likely, fed GMO grains,

However, the debate over GMOs should not be about whether science is right or wrong, but about what the consumer wants. Dismissing European consumers’ attitude as ‘irrational’ or ‘non-scientific’ won’t win the pro-GMO side any supporters. And, for what it’s worth the ‘Frankenfood’ zealots annoy me just as much as the ‘science is the only answer’ pro-GMO side. The reality is, if there is a perception of risk, trying to allay the fear by shoving ‘it’s safe, just eat it’ messages down the throats of Europeans just won’t work. If fact, it will drive further skepticism and fear.

It’s a matter of what the consumer wants and, to date, the European consumer has said no to GMOs. There are 742 million consumers in Europe, of whom 70% believe that GMOs are fundamentally unnatural and 60% think GMOs are a threat to their health and a threat to future generations.

The science-touting pro-GMO lobbyist don’t seem to understand one basic, fundamental element – that perception is not based on science. It will take more than 2,000 scientific reports to change consumer perception, if it can be changed.

Ireland needs to really consider its possible future stance on GMO cultivation. We have heard in recent weeks from beef farmers how long it takes to change a farming operation. If we go down the road of cultivating GMO crops, we need to be sure there won’t be any u-turns in the future.