Syngenta‘s GM maize will soon be available in the EU, following the end of a five-year moratorium on GM products in the region. Biotechnology companies will be pleased, but they still face a significant battle in trying to convince consumers to buy foods with GM ingredients.

From next month, the European Union will allow the sale of a new genetically modified food for the first time in five years. A moratorium on GM products was put in place in 1998, ostensibly as a reaction to widespread fears about the long-term effects of GM crops and derived products. This decision drew vociferous complaints from biotechnology companies, particularly ones based in the US, such as the biotech giant Monsanto.

Most large biotechnology companies are based in the US, where GM crops and products made from them are already widespread. Because these companies have effectively been denied entry to the European marketplace, the US government has made a formal complaint about the EU’s stance to the World Trade Organisation.

American biotechnology companies have welcomed the news, but not as wholeheartedly as they would have if the first authorisation to commercialise a GM product hadn’t been delivered to Syngenta, a European company. The Anglo-Swiss company’s new maize product should be approved next month, and could be used in oil and starches.

It is good news for the biotechnology sector, which has been haemorrhaging investors in recent years, however there is no evidence that European consumers will accept GM foods more readily now than they did five years ago. Many consumers are distrustful of GM foods because of the possible associated hazard, and because of their unpredictable ecological impact.

From next year, all products in the EU containing GM ingredients will carry a distinctive label to identify them from other products. Given consumers’ antipathy to GM foods, it may well be that after waiting for five years, the biotechnology companies will discover that there is simply no market for their products in the EU, and that the greatest threat they face is not legislation, governments, or international trade agreements, but consumer preferences.

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