Opposition to genetically modified crops and food remains formidable, new research reveals, as the Government gears up to take the crucial decision on whether GM crops should be grown commercially in Britain.
An official national GM debate and three big reports on GM technology are all due in the next few months to prepare the way for the decision, which after three years' delay will finally be taken later this year by the Secretary of State for Environment in consultation with the Prime Minister.
Margaret Beckett and Tony Blair are both known supporters of GM technology and some reports from Whitehall have suggested that they have made up their minds in favour, and are prepared to force through the issue.
But unpublished data from the pollsters Mori shows that they will struggle to convince the public they are right. Although the GM issue has faded from the headlines compared with three or four years ago, opponents continue to outnumber supporters solidly, by four to one, with 56 per cent of the population against, and only 14 per cent in favour. Among women the figures are even starker, at six to one, with 61 per cent against and only 10 per cent in favour.
Opposition to GM goes across all political parties, social classes and income groups, the data shows: 56 per cent of Labour voters, 57 per cent of Tories, and 60 per cent of Liberal Democrats are against.
"The widespread extent of the opposition is surprising," said Philip Downing, Mori's head of environmental research. "Several years ago, when the row over GM was at its height, there was a clear majority against, and there still is. If the Government thinks that people are coming round to GM technology, this clearly shows that the opposition to it is still remarkably stable."
There is some hope for GM supporters in the fact that a fairly substantial body of people, 25 per cent, remain undecided.
A government-funded national debate on the GM issue is shortly to get under way, organised by an independent steering board, with conferences, meetings and discussions planned all over the country. It will report people's feelings to the Government in the summer and the Government has promised that it will "respond".
At the same time, two studies of the GM issue by senior Whitehall officials will be published: one is a review of the science, and the other a study of the costs and benefits of growing GM crops in the UK. Finally, the Government will publish the result of the farm-scale trials of GM crops, the three-year tests to see whether the new weedkillers that the crops are engineered to tolerate are particularly harmful to farmland wildlife. Then it will decide whether to approve GM crops.
The poll results suggest that if the decision is favourable, it will be in the teeth of public opposition. Peter Riley of Friends of the Earth said: "Mori's result showing four to one against GM foods suggests that the biotech industry and government have failed to convince people that GM crops are worth taking a chance on.
"If the Government was hoping to use the GM public debate to convince this substantial majority of consumers that they are wrong then it looks set for an uphill struggle. Supermarkets were forced to listen to the demands of their customers for GM-free food in the late 1990s. The question is, will this Government listen to the electorate and take UK farming and food production in a more sustainable direction than GM?"