According to the the University of Gävle researchers, as the demand for eco-friendly food — produced without pesticides and environmentally harmful chemicals — increases, the need to develop genetically modified (GM) organisms that are more resistant to parasites and other environmental crop threats may increase. "Because of this, products labelled both ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘genetically modified’ could become commonly available on the market,” they write.
Sustainable GM: perfect match or oxymoron?
Patrik Sörqvist, professor of environmental psychology and lead author of the study told FoodNavigator he believed the concepts of genetic modification and sustainability could be reconciled. “The way I see it,
environmentally friendly production, that is, less pesticides in the production process, for example, may well require biotechnology to improve the crop's parasite resistance, to allow for proper harvest even without pesticides. That way, GM food becomes a necessity for the production of eco-friendly food. I see no conflict in that.”
But there are others who see the two as mutually incompatible. Alexander Hissting, managing director of Ohne Gentechnik, an association which represents food manufacturers and retailers and advocates food production without the use of GMOs, said: “GM can definitely not [be seen as an eco-friendly choice] from my perspective, not from the perspective of the 320 companies we represent and not from the perspective of German consumers. GM plants have way too many negative eco impacts to be considered even close to eco-friendly.”
But a Eurobarometer survey from 2010 which questioned Europeans on their attitudes to GM foods and biotechnology found that the picture is not as clear cut. Overall only 23% of respondents said they believed GM did no harm to the environment, but a breakdown shows attitudes vary per country. Greeks were the most GM-sceptic with 88% saying it made them feel uneasy while 45% of Icelanders said it didn't and 40% of Maltese respondents were undecided.
Some believe that food producers and retailers need to communicate more openly about the challenges of food production and distribution in order to make consumers more receptive to GM: in an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron in 2014, the chair and co-chair of the Council for Science and Technology Sir Mark Walport and Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell said: “The case must be made that food developed from GM is the product of sustainable agriculture, is of the highest nutritional quality, and can meet the needs of communities in different parts of the world,” the letter read.
This is in line with the position being pushed by EuropaBio, the European Association for Bioindustries, which says that biotech can decrease the pressure on shrinking water resources. But it believes that before GM can be associated with sustainable shopping choices, consumers need to know what is GM and what isn't.
"In Europe, all food and feed products consisting of, containing, or obtained from GM plants when this is above 0.9% of an ingredient need to be labelled as GMO. This should allow consumers to make an informed choice, but in practice many European supermarkets do not put GM labelled foods on their shelves, even if it has been proven that when given the choice, people buy GM-labelled food according to the EU Research Project ConsumerChoice from 2008. It is hence difficult to speak about a campaign informing people of the products’ sustainable characteristics when European consumers are actually not given the choice to access these products in the first place," a spokesperson said.
Putting it to the test: The study
To test consumer acceptability, researchers showed Swedish and British consumers packets of raisins that were labelled as bearing either a GM label; an eco-friendly one; both together or none at all, and measured the impact on taste, health perception, environmental concern and willingness to pay.
They found that the raisins with both GM and eco-friendly labels were rated almost level with the non-labelled alternatives, suggesting the association with GM removes the psychological benefits of the eco-label. This effect was larger for the Swedes than the British respondents.
A YouGov survey published last week, involving more than 18,000 people in 17 different countries, found that British public rank among the least concerned about the effects of climate change – only the USA and Saudi Arabia – rated it lower while Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden, were in the top three most concerned.
“Interestingly, the Swedish and the UK samples did not differ in overall environmental concern and still the magnitude of the eco-label effect was (much) more substantial in the Swedish sample,” write the authors.
“This pattern suggests that environmental concern, per se, is not the mechanism underpinning the label effect. Rather, the positive effects of an eco-label appear to be underpinned by positive attitudes toward eco-friendly food more specifically, without necessarily involving concern for the environment.”
Study source: Food Quality and Preference
“Effects of labeling a product eco-friendly and genetically modified: A cross-cultural comparison for estimates of taste, willingness to pay and health consequences”
Published online ahead of print 21 January 2016, doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2016.01.007
Authors: Patrik Sörqvist, John E. Marsh, Rebecca Hulme et al.