GMO COMPASS - Information on genetically modified organisms
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Stories

Opposition decreasing or acceptance increasing?

 An overview of European consumer polls on attitudes to GMOs


In the field and on the plate, gene technology is seen as controversial, particularly in Europe. The European Commission, as well as national institutes and agencies, regularly conduct polls in order to assay the general tendencies of consumers. This overview attempts to capture this plethora of opinion representation and identify common trends and indicators. The majority of consumers regard gene technology with hesitation, but approval has grown continuously in the Eurobarometer polls in recent years. Approximately one half of consumers are able to accept gene technology, particularly when benefits for consumers and for the environment can be linked to GMO products. In 2007, 80 % of respondents did not cite the application of GMOs in agriculture as a significant environmental problem. Many consumers seem unafraid of health risks from GMO products: according to polls, most European consumers do not actively avoid GMO products while shopping.

 

Polls make clear that the majority of European consumers regard gene technology in agriculture and food products with some scepticism. In a Eurobarometer poll in 2005, only 27 % of Europeans expressed a positive attitude towards GM food whereas significantly less, 21 % were positive to GM food in the 2002 Eurobarometer. In individual Member States, however, attitudes towards GM food are markedly varied. For example, 46 % of consumers in the Czech Republic approved of GM foods. With 38 % and 34 % respectively, such approval is also comparatively high in Portugal and Spain. In contrast only 14 % of Greeks and 13 % of Luxembourgers, for example, commend this technology.

Furthermore, it’s evident that accurate information on GMOs is key to raising consumer acceptance. The Eurobarometer poll in 2005 shows that 42 % of the section of the European public that is clearly "decided" on key questions regarding GM food (49 % of the total sample) supports GM food. Additionally, 44 % of the respondents declared that they would definitely/probably buy GM food, if it were approved by the relevant authorities.

Still high information demand of consumers

National and European polls indicate that many European consumers apparently have yet to form an ultimate opinion on the topic. According to the Eurobarometer poll in 2007 the "use of genetically modified organisms in Farming" is the second most common topic for which European consumers cite a clear deficit of information (34 % of respondents). In some countries, the demand for information is even significantly higher: for example, 58 % of Finns and 55 % of Cypriots want more information on the topic.

In a survey by the British Institute of Grocery Distribution in 2008, the majority (58 %) of respondents declared neutrality or the lack of an opinion with regard to GM food. Based on their own assessments, most UK consumers have only a limited understanding of GM foods. Forty-eight per cent of the polled consumers believed their knowledge on the subject of GM foods to be limited.

 

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Change in the level of optimism towards biotechnology and genetic engineering among European consumers (Eurobarometer 1999-2005)

Biotechnology and gene technology on the rise

A clear trend emerging from the surveys is that in recent years, general scepticism towards gene technology is on the decrease. Every year since 1999, more people have answered "yes" to the question of "whether bio- and gene technology will influence one’s own life in a positive manner in the next 20 years". In 2005, 50 % of respondents regarded biotechnology as positive and about 30 % of respondents saw gene technology as good. As late as 1999, only 10 % of respondents had assumed a positive contribution of gene technology to their lives.

In the most recent Eurobarometer (poll results from 2007), European consumers were asked to identify the environmental themes about which they were most concerned. On average, 20 % of respondents cited the topic of "GMOs in farming". In comparison to results from the year 2005, this represents a decrease of 4 percentage points. By contrast, most respondents considered the themes "climate change" (57 %), "water pollution" (42 %) and "air pollution" (40 %) as most important.

Similar trends were noted in a poll by the British Food Standard Agency at the end of 2008. "Concerns about GM foods" were identified as an area for concern by 26 % of respondents. However, the same question surveyed since 2001 demonstrates that concerns about GM foods have consistently declined: In 2007 about 30 % had concerns, in 2004 about 35 % and in 2001, this was about 40 %. Topics such as salt, fat and sugar in food products (50 %, 40 % and 39 % of respondents, respectively) were regarded as more important.

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Percentage of people likely to buy GMOs according to given qualities (Eurobarometer, 2002 and 2005)

Gene technology with clear applications is supported far more strongly

According to polls, approval has been rising in recent years and overall approval increases significantly when consumers are asked to assess specific qualities of GM plants. In 2005, 51 % of European customers polled declared that they would purchase GM foods if these foods contained less pesticide than do conventional products. If the manufacture of GM foods were environmentally friendlier, 49 % of respondents would purchase the products in question. Forty-three per cent of respondents expressed disapproval. As late as 2002, the readiness to purchase such products was 10 percentage points lower in each case.

Another trend also is recognisable in the latest polls by the Institute of Grocery Distribution in the UK. GM technologies are seen as an important tool towards mitigation of increasing global food shortages and of responding to food production challenges posed by climate change:

  • More than half (52 %) of British consumers regard this technology as instrument against increasing global food shortages. While only 13 % of respondents expressed disagreement with this idea.

  • Nearly half (47 %) of respondents regard GM crops to be a solution for increasingly extreme weather conditions and for combating plant diseases. While only 12 % of those polled did not share this opinion.

Purchasing habits: probably not as expected

There are many examples indicating that consumers’ responses in polls (based on hypothrtical situations and choices) often differ to actual behaviour. In contrast to the hypothetical polls for or against GM products, the actual behaviour of consumers while shopping is a more important indicator of the manner in which individuals approach the new technology in an everyday context. In the European Commission funded research project "Consumerchoice", polls were conducted on this topic in 2006 and 2007. In countries in which GM products were available in shops at the time of the polls (the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain), only 20 % of buyers actively avoided such products. The authors of the study therefore regard it as likely that in many European countries GM products would be bought if they were offered for sale. Similar results were obtained in a poll by the Institute of Grocery Distribution in the UK in 2008. More than half (53 %) of respondents claimed not to think about GM when shopping. Only 21 % claimed to check food labels to ensure that food was non-GM.

Even more impressive are the results of a study made in 2007 (University of Otago Marketing Commerce, New Zealand). Tests were carried out in actual market settings in five European countries. In each case, a roadside stall was set up with fruit labelled three different ways (organic, conventional, or spray-free GM) and sold at different price levels. A total of 2,736 customers visited the fruit stalls. Under the pricing scenario researchers considered most plausible (15 % premium paid for organic and a 15 % discount for the spray-free GM option), the GM option gained the dominant market share in the Swedish and German stalls, and reached 30 % or more in the UK and French stalls. The results of the study indicate once again that GM food may prove much more acceptable than has been previously widely stated, provided there is a clear indication of consumer benefits.

Conclusions:

Surveys show that while European consumers today may still have reservations about GM products, this should not be considered as a blanket refusal for such products. On a whole, surveys and shopping trials have shown just the opposite, namely that:

  • there is still a very big demand for information on GMOs with only a small portion of the population today having already formed a definite opinion about it,

  • more than 40 % of consumers surveyed who had already formed a ‘decided’ opinion on GM products, spoke positively of them,

  • acceptance of the new technology has increased steadily since 1999,

  • GM products having significant environmental or consumer benefits were rated positive by more than half the consumers and would be bought,

  • around 80% of consumers tested do not actively avoid GM products when shopping,

  • in actual shopping scenarios, low-priced GM products even reached dominant market share.

These results show that GM foods, contrary to widespread opinion, may have considerable chances on the European market. Former EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who left the post in 2008, describes the current situation as follows: "Public fears may be misplaced, but they cannot and should not be dismissed. We ...need to do a better job of setting out the issues so that people are aware of the potential benefits of GM food ...".

 


An EU Research Project

What are the risks of growing GM crops?

What are the benefits?

Numerous studies have addressed the potential impacts of genetically modified (GM) plants. Yet the existing evidence on the effects of GM plants is often contradictory and the quality of scientific research varies widely.

Therefore, the GRACE project will establish new tools for assessing the quality of existing studies and will conduct comprehensive reviews to identify health, environmental and socio-economic impacts of GM plants.

More information

Consumer surveys

Consumerchoice (2006-2008)

Country: European Union
King’s College London , EU project

Eurobarometer (2002)

Country: Europe
Conducted for EC’s Directorate-General for Research

Eurobarometer (2005)

Country: Europe
Conducted for EC’s Directorate-General for Research

Eurobarometer (2007)

Country: Europe
Conducted for EC’s Directorate-General for Research

Knowledge and acceptance of genetically modified foodstuffs (2004)

Country: Hungary
Central Food Research Institute, Budapest, Hungary

Consumer attitudes to food standards (2007)

Country: UK
Conducted for Food Standards Agency, UK

Public tracker (2008)

Country: UK
Conducted for Food Standards Agency, UK

GM Foods - Consumer Research

Country: UK
Institute of Grocery distribution, UK

Articles

"How have opinions about GMOs changed over time?" The situation in the European Union and the USA"

Country: Europe/USA
Time period: 1999-2007
S. Bonny, Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA), France

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April 16, 2009 [nach oben springen]

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