High Food Prices May Cut Opposition to Genetically Modified Food
ZURICH - Like many stores in Europe, the Coop chain of supermarkets in Switzerland does not specify whether goods are genetically modified - because none are. But a wave of food-price inflation may help wash away popular opposition to so-called Frankenstein foods.
"I think there's a lot of resistance in Switzerland," said a shopper, Beatrice Hochuli, as she picked out a salad for dinner at a bustling supermarket outside the main Zurich station. "Most people in Switzerland are quite against it."
Consumers, even those from relatively wealthy parts of the world, are rarely first in line to adopt new technologies. Although food prices are up more than 50 percent since May 2006, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Food Price Index, Europeans remain wary of foods derived from tinkering with the genetic makeup of plants.
But policy makers and food companies are pressing the genetic modification topic in a bid to temper aversion to biotech crops like pesticide-resistant rapeseed for oils and "Roundup-ready" soybeans, which tolerate dousing of the Roundup herbicide.
These are crops already common in the United States and other major food exporters like Argentina and Brazil.
The European Commission has said that it believes biotech crops can alleviate the current crisis in food supply, although it added in June that expediency should not overrule strict scientific scrutiny of the use of the technology involved.
The chairman of NestlÃƒ©, the world's biggest food group, has said it is impossible to feed the world without genetically modified organisms.
Meanwhile, the British government's former chief scientific adviser, David King, has said over the past week that genetically modified crops hold the key to solving the world's food crisis. He called in a Financial Times interview for a "third green revolution," in reference to two waves of innovation that helped increase crop yields sharply in Asia over the past 50 years.
Climate change and increasing concern about fresh water supplies are helping to fuel interest in new seed varieties likely to be more resistant to drought and able to produce reasonable yields with significantly less water. GM technology still has many opponents, who fear that genetically modified crops can create health problems for animals and humans, wreak havoc on the environment, and give far-reaching control over the world's food to a few corporate masters.
Yet a European Commission-sponsored opinion poll last month showed slight change in awareness and acceptance of the technology.
"For me it is just a matter of time before we get our head around GM," said Jonathan Banks at the market information company AC Nielsen. "The way people will learn to live with GM is to say 'we do it product by product and make sure everything is OK,"' Banks said. "At the moment we have a knee-jerk reaction which thinks of Frankenstein foods."
The European Union has not approved any genetically modified crops for a decade, and the Union's 27 member countries often clash on the issue. Outside the EU, Switzerland has a moratorium on growing GM crops, though that authorities have granted permission for three GM crop trials between 2008 and 2010 for research.
The market represents a substantial opportunity for biotechnology companies: the European seeds market is worth $7.9 billion, out of a global total of $32.7 billion, according to data from Cropnosis, a consultancy. The global genetically modified seeds market was worth $6.9 billion in 2007 and is set to grow further.
Agrochemical companies are riding a wave of high food prices and soaring demand for farm goods, and Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta have all raised 2008 earnings forecasts. Although high prices are a boon for farm suppliers, much of the cost has been passed on to consumers, sparking protests in many countries including Argentina, Indonesia and Mexico.
Others also see opportunity: in June, the chocolate maker Mars, the computer giant IBM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture said they would map the DNA of the cocoa tree to try to broaden the crop's $5 billion market.
In a Eurobarometer opinion poll in March, the number of European respondents saying they lacked information on genetically modified food fell to 26 percent, compared with 40 percent in the previous survey, which took place in 2005.
But 58 percent were apprehensive about the use of such crop technology and just 21 percent were in favor, down from 26 percent in a 2006 Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology.
"People do change attitudes, just gradually, because they become used to technologies," said Jonathan Ramsay, spokesman for Monsanto, the world's biggest seed company. "Consumers are looking at prices, consumers hear the stories about food production, growing population in the world, and I think people do understand that agriculture needs to be efficient."
Friedrich Berschauer, chief executive of the world's fourth-biggest seed producer, Bayer CropScience, believes that acceptance of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, will be gradual.
"Long-term, I am certain that GMOs will be accepted," Berschauer said. "But I dare not give a forecast whether that will be in 5 years or in 10."
But critics of genetic modification say that the technology does not bring the benefits promised. A recent report by the organic group Soil Association concluded that yields of all major GM varieties are equivalent to or less than those from conventional crops.
"GM chemical companies constantly claim they have the answer to world hunger while selling products which have never led to overall increases in production," said Peter Melchett, Soil Association's policy director, "and which have sometimes decreased yields or even led to crop failure."
Geert Ritsema, a genetic engineering campaigner at Greenpeace International, said that proponents of biotech crops are using high market prices to scare consumers into thinking that their food will become too expensive unless they turn to GM technology.
More awareness of the technology could also reinforce wariness, said Jean Halloran, head of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union.
"I think that if consumers become really educated," she said, "that's the point they'll end up at and say, 'Why should I mess around with this technology when it has no benefits to me?"'
Copyright © 2008 The International Herald Tribune