The European Union has today relaxed its six-year ban on the approval of new genetically modified foodstuffs, paving the way for canned GM sweetcorn to hit the supermarket shelves for the first time. But will the Commission's decision mean much of a change in shoppers' habits?
EU officials have been under intense pressure in recent months from pro-GM nations such as the US, Canada and Argentina, which have argued that the moratorium on GM approvals effectively constituted a barrier to international trade. Faced with the possibility of World Trade Organisation sanctions, Brussels had little choice but to lift the ban.
The lifting of the moratorium means that the EU has also granted approval for GM sweetcorn, made from the Bt11 maize line from Syngenta, to be sold in stores throughout the Union. The canned sweetcorn, which will be imported, will have to adhere to strict new labelling requirements introduced by the EU in April, showing clearly on the labelling that the corn has been harvested from a genetically modified plant.
Grain from the Bt11 line has been authorised for import into Europe since 1998 and is widely used in the EU in feed and in derived food products such as maize oil, maize flour, sugar and syrup, snack foods, baked foods, fried foods, confectionery and soft drinks, the Commission said. The current authorisation only covers imports of canned or fresh sweetcorn - although an application to allow the planting of Bt11 maize in the EU is currently waiting approval.
Consumer concerns about the environmental and health impact of GM products were the main reason for the EU's decision not to approve any applications for the last six years, and Health Commissioner David Byrne sought to reassure consumers that the canned sweetcorn was safe for consumption.
"GM sweet corn has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world. It has been scientifically assessed as being as safe as any conventional maize. Food safety is therefore not an issue, it is a question of consumer choice. The new EU rules on GMOs require clear labelling and traceability. Labelling provides consumers with the information they need to make up their own mind. They are therefore free to choose what they want to buy. The Commission is acting responsibly based on stringent and clear legislation."
But all the indications are that consumers' choice will be not to buy GM foods, and there are likely to be few takers for the canned sweetcorn among Europe's food retail groups.
"We have carried out numerous surveys of our customers, and the overwhelming response is that they do not want to eat GM food products - it is as simple as that," David Croft of UK supermarket group Co-op told FoodandDrinkEurope.com. "In fact, their opposition to GM foods goes far beyond finished products - our shoppers are even opposed to the use of GM-derived processing aids, which may not even be present in the final food item. We certainly have no plans to stock any GM foods in the immediate future."
Nor did Croft expect the reaction to be any different for any other company either. "Each retailer will of course make their own decision, but if their consumers do not want to buy GM foods, why would any company stock them? It wouldn't make commercial sense to do so. I'd be very surprised if there is any great demand for it."
"Certainly for us, a company with a lot of small stores and therefore only a limited amount of shelf space, the decision about whether to stock GM sweetcorn would be undoubtedly driven by what our shoppers wanted. We can't have five different brands of sweetcorn on sale at the same time as it is, so it would be stupid to replace the lines we have with GM variety knowing our shoppers wouldn't buy it."
European consumers, Croft suggested, are also unlikely to be swayed by any attempt by the GM industry to promote the benefits of their products. "GM groups in the past have tried to promote the benefit to consumers of their products, but these efforts have failed. Consumers are highly mistrustful of large corporations, including both biotech groups and food producers, seeing the only benefits of GM as being bigger profits for the companies behind it."
Despite Commissioner Byrne's reassurances that the Bt11 maize was perfectly safe, consumers remained highly sceptical about the accuracy of most health assessments, Croft said, suggesting that many of the assessments carried out in the UK had been shown to contain serious anomalies which undermined their conclusions.
Croft also debated the accuracy of claims that GM food stuffs would be cheaper than traditional products, and that retailers and consumers would eventually be swayed by this price differential. "Will GM products be any cheaper? I'm not so sure. There may well be productivity benefits from GM crops, but it is likely that most of these will be offset by higher costs elsewhere, such as labelling requirements. And unless these benefits can be passed right through to the consumer [rather than adding to retailers or manufacturers margins], shoppers are unlikely to be swayed."
The choice of whether or not to buy GM foods is, as Commissioner Byrne suggested, of vital importance, but the Co-op spokesman suggested that the labelling requirements designed to make this choice easier could have been much tougher. "Like much labelling legislation, these rules are open to multiple interpretations, and consumers are not necessarily guaranteed to notice the GM indication," Croft said.
"If we were to sell a GM product - which we certainly have no plans to do at all - we would put the GM label on the front of the pack where the consumer could see it clearly. But that is because we have a policy of clear and honest labelling. Some companies may not necessarily be that keen to highlight their GM credentials, and perhaps seek to bury the information where it is hard to find - a factor which becomes all the more important when the GM product is just one component of a more processed food product."
It is likely, then, that the future of GM food products in the UK and the rest of Europe will depend primarily on the retail sector - whether the cost benefits to the groups of buying GM products are sufficient to offset the potential backlash from their consumer base. It will certainly be a brave supermarket which stocks the first GM product in the UK - not a single major grocery retailer currently does so - but once GM products, in particular ingredients in processed products, become more widespread, as they inevitably will, how long will consumer antipathy be enough of a barrier?