A rare case of dissension within the ranks of the European Commission overshadowed last week’s conference in Vienna on genetically modified (GM) crops, but the future of biotech foods in the EU is likely to depend more on consumer acceptance than on legislation from Brussels, as Chris Jones reports.

The Vienna conference, organised by the Commission and the Austrian EU presidency, brought together senior politicians, biotech supporters and environmentalists from across the EU for two days of discussion on the coexistence of GM with traditional and organic crops.

EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel expressed the official Commission line that coexistence deals only with GMOs that have been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and is therefore not about the safety of GM foods but about technical issues such as threshold levels and liability rules. “Coexistence policy is not about the safety of people, animals or the environment. It is not a tool for managing risks to health or to the environment,” she said.

But environment commissioner Stavros Dimas suggested that GM crops could pose a threat to biodiversity over the long-term and criticised EFSA for relying too heavily on research from the biotech companies. “I am keen to ensure that the environment is protected from potential risks arising from the cultivation of GMOs,” he said. “Applications for cultivation of GM products raise a whole new series of possible risks to the environment, notably potential longer-term effects that could impact on biodiversity.”

The Greek commissioner’s comments were unexpected – not least because the EU executive usually goes to great lengths to present a united front – but it was his comments on consumer attitudes to GM foods that proved particularly provocative: “The low level of acceptance of GM crops will mean that consumer demand for GMOs is not likely to increase and as a consequence farmers will choose to continue to grow conventional or organic varieties in Europe.”

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Simon Barber, director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit at the European biotech industry association Europabia, responded angrily to the commissioner’s comments. “It is not up to commissioner Dimas to decide whether EU consumers do or don’t want GMOs. Survey after survey shows that they want choice,” he said.

But the overwhelming sentiment within the EU is against GM foods – only Spain currently grows commercial GM crops – and as long as biotech foods in other markets continue to retail at roughly the same price as traditional crops, there is little financial incentive for consumers or retailers in Europe to push for change.

Second-generation GMOs, such as the so-called ‘golden rice’ strain which has been engineered to contain high levels of vitamin A, could help swing the balance in favour of biotech as European consumers become increasingly obsessed by functional foods. But these too will depend on whether European governments have the collective will to restart the process of approving GM crops for cultivation in the EU. Approvals have been stalled since 1998 and a decision to restart the process is as likely to be taken on political as scientific grounds.

Political decisions are as much a response to consumer confidence as they are a driver of it, and it would be a brave government that gave its wholehearted backing to GM crops in the face of the current consumer antipathy. Yet without a firm commitment from European governments to out their faith in biotech foods, it is hard to imagine consumer confidence improving – certainly not if the only people singing the praises of GM are the biotech companies themselves.