Since the first introduction on the market in the mid-1990s of a major GM food (herbicide-resistant soybeans), there has been concern about such food among politicians, activists and consumers, especially in Europe. Several factors are involved. In the late 1980s – early 1990s, the results of decades of molecular research reached the public domain. Until that time, consumers were generally not very aware of the potential of this research. In the case of food, consumers started to wonder about safety because they perceive that modern biotechnology is leading to the creation of new species.
Consumers frequently ask, “what is in it for me?”. Where medicines are concerned, many consumers more readily accept biotechnology as beneficial for their health (e.g. vaccines, medicines with improved treatment potential or increased safety). In the case of the first GM foods introduced onto the European market, the products were of no apparent direct benefit to consumers (not significantly cheaper, no increased shelflife, no better taste). The potential for GM seeds to result in bigger yields per cultivated area should lead to lower prices. However, public attention has focused on the risk side of the risk-benefit equation, often without distinguishing between potential environmental impacts and public health effects of GMOs.
Consumer confidence in the safety of food supplies in Europe has decreased significantly as a result of a number of food scares that took place in the second half of the 1990s that are unrelated to GM foods. This has also had an impact on discussions about the acceptability of GM foods. Consumers have questioned the validity of risk assessments, both with regard to consumer health and environmental risks, focusing in particular on long-term effects. Other topics debated by consumer organizations have included allergenicity and antimicrobial resistance. Consumer concerns have triggered a discussion on the desirability of labelling GM foods, allowing for an informed choice of consumers.