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image image image Date published: 03/04/2002
  image A special field
RTD info Special
  Europeans are certainly not very keen on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a field in which they demand the right to choose. They want to be better informed, to know more about their use in food and to know what scientists think about whether or not they are harmless.

Is food containing GMOs harmful to health? One-quarter of Europeans are unable to say one way or the other. A majority of them nevertheless believe that GMOs can pose a threat (56.4%). This group of opponents includes approximately the same number of citizens who state they are well informed (59.9%) as against poorly informed (53.2%): 58% of those who left school at 15 or under distrust GMOs, a sizeable (53.2%) proportion of those who stayed at school beyond the age of 20 having the same doubts. Such shared opposition, very rarely found in answers to other questions, is characteristic of the particular importance of GMOs, especially where human food is concerned.(1) It is also important to note that, setting aside GMOs, 59% of Europeans believe that "science and technology will improve agriculture".

The right to choose

The 2001 survey provided a deeper insight into opinions on this very controversial subject by measuring the response to a number of propositions, mainly relating to consumer freedom and information and the potential dangers of GMOs. The first of these assertions ("I want to have the right to choose") met with record approval: 94.6% of Europeans want to be able to decide for themselves. 85.9% of them also want sufficient information ("to know more about this kind of food before eating it"), while just as many believe that GMOs "should only be introduced if it is scientifically proven that they are harmless" - which can also be interpreted as an expression of confidence in science.

Food and the environment

Nevertheless, distrust remains the dominant feeling: 70.9% of those interviewed reject this kind of food, compared with 14.6% who consider that it does not present "any particular danger". Among the more educated people the distrust level "falls" to 65.4%. It is also a view less widely held by young people: 64.3% of 15- to 24-year- olds (compared with 74.8% of the over-65s), especially young men (60.7% reject GMOs compared with 68.1% of women in the same age group). Strangely, the Dutch and the Portuguese are most likely (23.1% and 24.3% respectively) to consider that these products pose no risk.

59.4% of those interviewed believe that transgenic plants could "have negative effects on the environment". This view varies according to the level of knowledge - the higher it is the greater the agreement. The pros and cons of GMOs nevertheless remain something of a mystery for a relatively large number of Europeans, and the proportion of "don't knows" is not insignificant: 30.6% for the potential risk in general and 28.7% for negative effects on the environment.

Graphic element

(1) In his interview, Daniel Boy stresses (see pages 3 and 4) the specific problem of GMOs on which opinions differ in regard to information and knowledge. GMOs could have negative effects on the environment*

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15- to 24-year-olds are less hostile to GMOs than older people. If this is due to a generational effect by which young people are more used to technological innovation, then this sentiment is likely to persist. If, on the other hand, it is an age group phenomenon, young people being naturally less sensitive to risk than their elders, then one should not expect any dramatic change in the overall attitudes of society to GMOs.

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