After a five year long moratorium on growing and commercialising GM foods, the EU has authorised the entry of a GM product onto the market. European consumers are still unconvinced, and the biotechnology companies behind the products fear the public may reject them. However consumers may learn to accept GM, first in nutraceuticals, and then in mainstream foods.

In 1998 the European Union introduced a moratorium on the sale of genetically modified foods and their use in other products, claiming that their effect on human health and the environment had to be further researched before they could be released on the European market. Although this decision was partly motivated by a desire to protect European agriculture and biotechnology sector from US rivals, there was also considerable rejection of GM foods on the part of consumers.
However, to the great relief of the biotechnology industry, the EU authorised the commercialisation of a GM maize product two weeks ago, giving the industry hope that its investments over the past five years may finally pay off.

Nonetheless, from next year, all products containing GM ingredients will have to be clearly labelled as so in the EU, and there is no evidence that European consumers are any better disposed to GM foods now than they were in 1998. This has lead to fears in the biotech industry on both sides of the Atlantic that there may simply be no market for GM foods in the EU because consumers just don’t want them.

However, Sean Rickard, an expert in the field, this week told the first national Agricultural Industries Confederation conference in the UK that consumers would prefer foods benefiting from GM technology to traditional ones within 15 years. According to Mr Rickard, consumers will see the functional benefits that can be derived from using GM technology in the growing nutraceuticals market.

Given the current high levels of consumer mistrust over GM foods, Rickard’s scenario may be overly optimistic. However, consumers’ gradual use of GM foods with nutraceutical benefits (such as the cholesterol reducing spreads available on the market today) and the improved consumer health that these products could offer may provoke a gradual change in public opinion.

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