Frankenstein food remains unpopular.

Public attitudes to genetically modified (GM) agriculture are not changing with most people still uncomfortable with the technology, according to a study conducted by Swinburne University’s Centre for Emerging Technologies and Society.

Related: GM Canola growing in Melbourne suburb

The random study conducted interviews of 1000 people who were asked how comfortable they were with genetically modified food crops. On a scale of 10, with zero being ‘not at all comfortable’ the average score or degree of comfort was found to be 3.9. This negative perception of GM foods has remained fairly constant over recent years, with one of the authors of the study, Professor Michael Gilding stating that the level of comfort “was 4.2 in 2003; 3.8 in 2004, 4.0 in 2005; 4.2 in 2006; 4.1 in 2007; and 3.9 in 2008.

That the public’s perception of GM foods has remained constant does not surprise Gilding. “In the late 1990s, most people formed their views about genetic manipulation of agriculture. Negative views regarding new technologies such as GM are shaped early on among the larger part of the population, and these people have stayed with this view,” claims Gilding.

The Swinburne study found that the public’s reaction to GM is not due to ignorance about the technology, but rather because of a lack of trust in the institutions responsible for the technology’s commercialization. The research also highlights the growing importance of trust in our public institutions, as more and more of our daily lives are informed by science and technology. “If people have confidence in scientific organizations, such as universities and hospitals, they tend to believe in GM agriculture, whereas people who trust the environment movement are more likely to distrust GM agriculture,” said Gilding. “In the past we were much more likely to trust authorities on matters of food and health. However, we are seeing a broad change in society where people are far more skeptical of these new technologies,” he added.

The director of Gene Ethics, Bob Phelps, states that “a major target of public mistrust is Monsanto, the world's biggest seed company that owns patents on over 90% of all commercial GM soy, corn, canola and cotton crops that are grown.” Monsanto has recently been ranked last among 581 transnational companies for its reputation by the Geneva-based Covalence reputation index. "Monsanto's management and shareholders should be ashamed of ranking absolutely last,” says Phelps who heads the non-profit network which envisages a safer, more equitable, and more sustainable GM-free society.

"Monsanto must behave much more ethically if it hopes to win public confidence and trust around the world, says Phelps. The company needs to spend the enormous money that is spent on research and development, not on genetically modified food, in order to capture control of the world’s food supply as they are doing, but on making world agriculture more sustainable.” He says that the promises of feeding the world and of a cornucopia of new drought tolerant, and salt tolerant crop plants are empty claims. “Monsanto has attempted to use the patent system in order to impose its own will and its profit making motives on the worlds food supply.”

Over the past few decades, multinational chemical companies such as Monsanto, along with Bayer and Syngenta have been genetically engineering new food crops which could never have occurred in nature and include corn that produces its own insecticide and canola which is immune to toxic sprays. Whereas traditional forms of breeding involve using organisms within the same species, gene technology moves genes from one life form forcing them often into quite different species, resulting in novel crops, which are then processed into food and sold in shops, mostly unlabelled.

In Australia, the labelling of GM food is extremely limited and excludes products such as meat, milk, and eggs produced by animals that have been fed GM stock feed. Neither do our current labelling laws apply to processed foods containing cooking oils produced from GM crops. “For the last 20 years the public has been surveyed about genetically manipulated food crops, with around 90% of Australians saying they want labelling of all foods produced using the technology,” explains Phelps.

On the 9th February, in a surprise move, described by Phelps as ‘a victory for democracy’, the Indian government stopped the release of its first genetically modified vegetable due to concerns over its safety. The decision to stop the proposed commercialization of GM eggplant was welcomed by anti-GM campaigners, farmers and shoppers worldwide. The Indian Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh said that the evidence as to the safety and environmental impacts have not been ascertained and the moratorium will be in place until all tests are carried out to the satisfaction of everyone. One of the reasons that the Indian Government has moved to stop the release of GM eggplant is that a director of Monsanto India has broken ranks, and publicly stated that the company has used fake scientific data.

The Director of Gene Ethics, Bob Phelps shares his condemnation asserting that ‘this is a warning to regulators around the world that they need to take another look at the health and safety of all GM crops.’ “We know that some GM crops are unsafe for the experimental and farm animals and so we can reasonably assume that some of these GM crops are not safe for humans either.”

Leading health bodies, such as the Public Health Association of Australia have concerns about GM foods. These include the fact that there are likely to be increased pesticide residues in our food and there is concern about the ingestion of new proteins and allergens, plus the unknown effects arising from the use of antibiotic-resistance genes in GE plants. “The community doesn’t want it, and there is no evidence at all that as a result of the expenditure of several billions of dollars of over the last two decades by Australian governments, that there has been any benefit, either economically or for the public good.

Gene Ethics is calling for a vigorous review of the research and development priorities with a view to downscaling and perhaps even eliminating expenditure on genetic manipulation technologies. “They don’t work, they’re a ‘dud’ and it’s time that governments realize that, declared Phelps.

Helen Lobato