It’s 20 years since the first GM food... and Sheffield University want to discover why there’s still scepticism

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It’s 20 years since the first genetically-modified food went on sale in British supermarkets - but public opinion still shows that the methods are not always embraced. Academics at Sheffield University are among those who want to find out why.

Back in 1996, it was a frightening concept for some. They were uneasy at the thought of food being produced from plants which had their genetic make-up tweaked in a lab, but supporters of the method argued it would ensure cheaper, better and more plentiful food.

Tomato puree, which had the rotting gene removed, went on sale at Safeway and Sainsbury’s stores. Zeneca produced the GM puree and said that it had a stronger taste and stuck better to pasta.

In the two decades that have passed, there has been plenty of time for people to develop more faith in the genetically-modified approaches across the world. That has not always happened here though.

“We are interested here in Sheffield about why public opinion is so against it,” said Professor Jurriaan Ton of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences.

“It is fair to say that public opinion tends to be fairly conservative regarding new technology - but in medicine, for example, or with Iphones, it tends to be embraced. When it comes to foods, people can be much more critical. We are planning to come up with a large public survey to understand why.

“Recently, there was a baby who was treated with designer immune cells and the people saw that it was a fantastic improvement. It seems that it’s ok with humans, but with crops it’s opposed.

“My bet is that a lot of people don’t like the idea of large multinational companies monopolising the food market with powerful technology.”

Going back 20 years, the fear was so great among some people that the phrase Frankenstein Food was in use to describe some GM products. That was because of scientists cutting and pasting a gene from another organism into the plant’s DNA to give it a new characteristic.

Opponents said that the consequences of meddling with nature were unknown - although there was no evidence of it harming humans. There were also arguments that chemicals could have an impact on wildlife.

“Each GM product needs to be assessed individually,” Professor Ton said. “From a scientific point of view, there’s lots of frustration that technology cannot be used to its full potential.”

When asked about the impact of the GM foods over the past two decades, the University of Sheffield professor made clear that he thinks public opinion has had an effect. “It depends on where in the world you live,” he said. “On a global level, there has been a huge impact on crop production. Since 1996, the amount of GM crops worldwide has increased a hundred-fold. Technology has been very successful. In the UK and Europe, there has not been the same impact, with public opinion having an effect.”