EU opposition to GMOs is overstated, new survey reveals

By Joan Conrow

August 3, 2019

Though Europeans are widely regarded as anti-GMO stalwarts, a new survey finds they hardly care about the issue at all.

Instead, Europeans today are more concerned about the misuse of antibiotics, hormones and steroids in farm animals (44 percent), pesticide residues in food (39 percent), environmental pollutants in fish, meat or dairy (37 percent) and food additives like colorings, flavorings and preservatives (36 percent).

Only 27 percent chose genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from a list of 15 possible food safety concerns — a substantial dip from the 66 percent who selected that option in 2010, the last time a European Union food safety survey was conducted.  GMOs dropped from number four on the 2010 list to number eight in the most recent survey.

The report — conducted by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to get insights on Europeans’ overall interest in food safety —undercut the oft-repeated narrative that 90 percent of Europeans oppose GMO foods. The results showed significantly fewer concerns about GMOs in each of the EU’s 28 member states.

“It is almost 10 years since the last EU-wide survey on this topic,” said Dr. Bernhard Url, executive director of EFSA, in a press release issued about the report. “Society has changed so much in this time and the way we produce and consume food has evolved too.”

The EFSA noted that as Europeans’ concerns about GMOs seem to have eased, new worries, such as microplastics, have emerged.

Concern about GMOs in the United Kingdom has been steadily dropping since 2005. There has been some discussion that the UK may ease restrictions on GMO crop cultivation and food imports when it leaves the EU in October.

Genome editing is barely on the radar, with only 22 percent expressing an awareness of the new technology and just 4 percent picking it as their top food safety concern. This could be due in part to the fact that very few gene-edited products have entered the food supply.

Other notable findings include: the most important factors for Europeans when buying food are where the food comes from (53 percent), cost (51 percent), food safety (50 percent) and taste (49 percent). Nutrient content is considered slightly less important (44 percent), while ethics and beliefs (e.g. considerations of animal welfare, environmental concerns or religion) rank lowest in importance (19 percent).

In regard to socio-demographics, women are more likely than men to say they are interested in the topic of food safety (44 percent vs. 38 percent) and younger respondents are less interested than older respondents (33 percent of 15-24 year-olds compared to 42-43 percent in the older age groups). Those who have difficulties paying bills are never or almost never more likely to be interested in the topic than those who have difficulties from time to time or most of the time (45 percent vs 34 percent).

The survey also revealed that 55 percent of Europeans are highly aware of food safety issues, and two-thirds — predominantly women — have altered their behavior after receiving information about the topic.

Television is the main source of information about food risks for 70 percent of all Europeans. For younger people, social media is the second-most important source (45 percent of 15-24-year-olds), while older people turn to newspapers (46 percent) and radio (30 percent).

However, most Europeans have limited understanding of how the EU food safety system works. Only 43 percent know that regulations are place to ensure food safety, and just 28 percent know that the EU relies on scientisfic advice when assessing food risks.

Still, the survey found that scientists are the most trusted source (82 percent) of information on food risks, followed by consumer organizations (79 percent), farmers (69 percent) national authorities (60 percent), EU institutions (58 percent), NGOs (56 percent), journalists (50 percent), supermarkets and restaurants (43 percent), food industries (36 percent) and celebrities, bloggers and influencers (19 percent).

“The fact that there is high trust in scientists is encouraging,” Url stated. “We can further increase Europeans’ confidence in their food if we better listen to their concerns and improve opportunities for dialogue, so they have a better understanding of the contribution science makes to the EU system.”

The survey comprised some 27,655 persons representing different social and demographic groups who were polled in face-to-face interviews conducted in their homes using their native language.