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BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - British consumers will only embrace genetically modified foods when traits are developed which provide them with significant benefits, Justin King, chief executive officer of grocer J Sainsbury Plc said on Tuesday.
King said in an interview that genetically modified crops had been focused on the producer rather than the consumer.
"It has never been the case that the UK population is against GM. There is a significant minority that are vocally and vehemently against it but the vast majority of the UK population would put themselves in the 'don't know, would like to know the facts and could be persuaded' box," he said.
"Something as significant as the change GM brings can't come about through only ambivalence. It has to come because the majority says that on balance, if carefully controlled, it is good for me as a customer," King added in an interview while attending the National Farmers' Union annual conference.
King gave the example of a GM blight-resistant potato which has recently been developed by British scientists.
"If you look at the debate in the last week or two about potatoes, that is a producer argument not a customer argument. The industry needs to focus on where the customer benefit is in any change," he said.
Strong opposition to GMO crops persists in the EU, unlike in regions such as North and South America where they are widely grown and consumed.
Britain's farm minister Owen Paterson is one of the strongest supporters of GMO crops, calling earlier this year for the approval process to be accelerated.
Many other EU members, led by France, remain sceptical about the benefits and a recent EU vote on an insect resistant maize was deadlocked with ministers and diplomats from 19 of the 28 EU countries opposing approval.
Sainsbury, which trails market leader Tesco, is battling with Wal-Mart Stores' Asda to be the UK's No. 2 grocer.
King said British consumers would not abandon major changes in food buying habits instituted during the economic downturn, even as early signs of recovery emerge.
These include more frequent shopping and more use of convenience stores to cut back on food waste and eating more as a family unit, he told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the National Farmers Union's annual conference.
"There have been radical changes in consumer behaviour and they will stick with them, not least because although we see a recovering economy, the consumer doesn't expect to have more money in their pocket in a year's time or the year after that," King said, adding many of those who remained in work during the downturn have seen their incomes fall a little each year.
"Another reason they have stuck is they are good habits," he added, noting consumers had adopted some of the practices of their parents, using leftovers to create other meals.
King said one reason British consumers had cut down on waste was to allow them to continue to support ethical sourcing, adding sales of Fairtrade products, which aim to give a better return to farmers in developing countries, have grown throughout the economic downturn.
Overall spending on food in Britain was expected to be "broadly the same" over the next 12 months, although food prices were difficult to predict as they would depend partly on global production of food commodities and sterling's exchange rate.
King is due to step down as chief executive in July and said he has not made any decisions on his next job.
"I wouldn't be giving away any secrets to say I've had the odd phone call or two since I announced I was leaving but I haven't announced anything because I've got nothing to announce and I don't expect to for many months yet," he said.
Editing by Keiron Henderson