Genetic modification is a topic of hot debate in the EU, as members of the bloc have been split about the role it should have in human food. Advocates argue that biotechnology could help ensure future food security for a growing population; anti-GM campaigners, on the other hand, say that the long term effects on human and environmental health are unknown and unknowable in the short time.
At present, few GM crops can be cultivated commercially in the EU, in comparison with the US, where take up has been broader. Applications to import GM foodstuffs and animal feed are subject to risk assessment by European Commission’s independent risk assessor, the European Food Safety Authority.
The new study was conducted in Alicante, Spain, to gauge awareness and perceptions of GM foods in that market. The authors, from Miguel Hernandez University, note that consumer views can vary wildly between EU member states but that not much investigative work had been carried out in Spain, despite some 80,000 hectares having being planted with GM crops in that country.
The research has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming issue of the Elsevier journal Food Policy. Its aim was to study consumer concern by analysing the motives that make consumers worry about GM in the food supply, and which give rise of the perceived risk.
Africa Martinez-Poveda and colleagues conducted face-to-face interviews with 465 individuals in Alicante between April and June 2004. The interviewees were asked questions on their knowledge of GM products in general, their view son the credibility of information, health aspects, potential beneficiaries, and legal aspects.
The researchers concluded that most of the concerns about GM food relates to perceived risk about human health.
They said there is a need for consumer health policies to accompany introductions of GM foods into agro-food markets, “to allow a decrease in consumer-perceived risk by taking special care of the information provided, concretely relating to health”.
The perceived risk could be reduced “through action in the part of various governmental organisms that take and active part in all EU agricultural development”. The need for policies is accompanied by a need for complementary strategies and action by businesses wanting to introduce GM food to the market – paying special attention to health, they say.
The researchers note that “risk cannot be totally eliminated”. But they add: “This risk can be minimised if good action in information and labelling is achieved.”
Who has heard of GM?
Notably, some 86.5 per cent of people knew or had heard of GM products, but their level of knowledge was low: Only 2.2 per cent of them had a high level of knowledge, 4.9 per cent said they had plenty of knowledge, 35.1 per cent had some knowledge and 44.3 per cent thought their knowledge was limited. Some 13.5 per cent said they had heard about GM products, but recognised that they knew nothing about them.
On the other hand, 57.4 per cent said they pay attention to information they receive on GMs, and 4.5 per cent go searching for information.
However, there seemed to be a problem with the perceived credibility of information available. When asked to rank the credibility of sources on a scale of 1 to 5, none was ranked 5 for “very believable”. The sources they were resented with were health professionals, scientists, ecological associations, product labels, public administration, food industry and journalists.
Food Policy (Elsevier), published online ahead of print
“Consumer-perceived risk model for the introduction of genetically modified food in Spain”
Authors: Martinez-Poveda, A; Brugarolas Molla-Bauza, M; del Campo Gomis, FJ; Martinez-Carrasco Matrinez, L.