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6. Public attitudes to agricultural biotechnology

Public attitudes to biotechnology will play an important role in determining how widely genetic engineering techniques will be adopted in food and agriculture. Public opinion has been studied extensively in Europe and North America but less so in other countries, and internationally comparable data are very limited. This chapter reviews the largest internationally comparable public opinion studies that have been conducted so far on agricultural biotechnology (Hoban, 2004). It concludes with a discussion of the possible role of labelling to address the differences in public attitudes towards transgenic foods.

Not surprisingly, public attitudes to agricultural biotechnology differ widely across countries, with people from Europe generally expressing more negative views than those from the Americas, Asia and Oceania. Attitudes are generally related to income levels, with people from poorer countries having more positive attitudes than those from wealthier countries, though there are exceptions to this pattern. Although these surveys are not very precise (for example, they often use the terms “biotechnology” and “genetic engineering” interchangeably - see Box 25), they find that people have fairly nuanced views. Although some people consider all applications of genetic engineering objectionable, most people make subtle distinctions, considering the type of modification and the potential risks and benefits.

Benefits and risks of biotechnology

The most extensive international study of public perceptions of biotechnology is a survey of about 35 000 people in 34 countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and Oceania (see list in Figure 10) and conducted by Environics International9 (2000). About 1 000 people in each country were asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:

The benefits of using biotechnology to create genetically modified food crops that do not require chemical pesticides and herbicides are greater than the risk.

The responses to this statement reveal some important differences by region (Figure 10). People in the Americas, Asia and Oceania were far more likely than Africans or Europeans to agree that the benefits of this use of biotechnology outweigh the risks. Whereas almost three-fifths of the people surveyed in the Americas, Asia and Oceania responded positively, only slightly more than one-third of the Europeans and slightly less than half of the Africans agreed. People in Africa and Europe were also more ambivalent in their responses, with one-fifth and one-third, respectively, saying they were not sure compared with only one-eighth in the Americas, Asia and Oceania.

In general, people in higher-income countries tend to be more sceptical of the benefits of biotechnology and more concerned about the potential risks, although there are exceptions to this pattern. Within Asia, for example, higher-income countries such as Japan and the Republic of Korea are more sceptical of the benefits and more concerned about the potential risks associated with biotechnology than people from lower-income countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia. Similarly, in Latin America, people in higher-income countries such as Argentina and Chile are more sceptical than are people from lower-income countries such as the Dominican Republic and Cuba. There are exceptions to this observation, however. Within Europe, for example, people from the higher-income country of the Netherlands are more positive about biotechnology on average than those from the lower-income Greece. Clearly factors other than income levels are important in determining attitudes towards biotechnology.

Within Asia and Oceania, the range of opinion varied widely, from 81 percent agreement in Indonesia to only 33 percent in Japan. Higher-income countries in Asia and Oceania - Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea - were generally less likely to agree that the benefits of using biotechnology to reduce chemical pesticide and herbicide use outweigh the risks than were other countries in the region. The range of opinion within the Americas was not as wide, ranging from 79 percent agreement in Cuba to 44 percent in Argentina. Within Latin America and the Caribbean, the higher-income countries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay were somewhat more negative than the others. Within North America, agreement with this statement was consistently high. European opinion was generally less accepting than in other regions, ranging from 55 percent agreement in the Netherlands to 22 percent in France and Greece.

In general, people in developing countries were more likely to support the application of genetic engineering to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides. On average, three-fifths of respondents from non-OECD countries agreed with the statement compared with two-fifths in the OECD countries. This suggests that for people in poorer countries the potential benefits of biotechnology tend to weigh more heavily than the perceived risks, whereas the opposite is true for wealthier countries. The OECD countries with the highest rate of agreement tend to be those where genetically engineered crops are already grown: Canada, Mexico and the United States.

BOX 25
Asking the right questions

Responses to public opinion polls depend, among other things, on the precise phrasing of the questions. Research has shown that asking about “biotechnology” is more likely to elicit a positive response than asking about “genetic engineering”. Although such subtleties can lead to a 10-20 percent shift in the balance of responses, many studies use these terms very loosely. Other factors can influence responses, such as the way in which respondents are selected and the type and amount of background material made available to them. For these reasons, comparisons of different studies across space and time should be made with caution.

Support for different applications of biotechnology

In a second question, the Environics International (2000) study asked survey respondents whether they would support or oppose the use of biotechnology to develop each of eight different applications (Figure 11). Public support differs widely depending on the specific biotechnology application under consideration. Applications that address human health or environmental concerns are viewed more favourably than applications that increase agricultural productivity. Almost all respondents indicated that they would support the use of biotechnology to develop new human medicines, although 13 percent would oppose it. More than 70 percent supported the use of biotechnology to protect or repair the environment, for example crops that produce plastics, bacteria that clean up environmental wastes or crops that require fewer chemicals. Support for the development of more nutritious crops was also supported by a large majority (68 percent) of those surveyed.

Biotechnology applications related to animals received considerably less support than crop or bacterial applications. Only a little over half of the respondents (55 percent) expressed support for genetically modified animal feed even when this resulted in healthier meat. The use of biotechnology to clone animals for medical research was opposed by 54 percent of those surveyed, and 62 percent opposed the genetic modification of animals to increase productivity. These results suggest that people are less comfortable with animal biotechnology, perhaps because it involves more complex ethical issues. People appear more likely to accept animal biotechnology applications that embody some tangible benefit, such as for human health, whereas economic benefits such as improved productivity were less persuasive.

Personal expectations of biotechnology

In a set of follow-up questions, Environics International (2000) sought to understand some of the attitudes and concerns underlying public support or opposition to biotechnology. In 15 of the study countries, respondents who indicated that they had heard of biotechnology were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement:

Biotechnology will benefit people like me in the next five years.

Almost 60 percent of the respondents to this question agreed that biotechnology would be beneficial (Figure 12). People from the Americas, Asia and Oceania were much more optimistic than Europeans that biotechnology would benefit them (no African countries were included in these follow-up questions). Two-thirds of the people from the Americas, Asia and Oceania held this view, compared with fewer than half of the Europeans. A similar divide was apparent by income level. Only a little more than half of the OECD respondents believed biotechnology would benefit them, whereas almost three-quarters of the people from non-OECD countries agreed with the statement. Countries where people were pessimistic about the potential of biotechnology to benefit them also tended to have fewer people who agreed that the benefits of genetically modified crops outweighed the risks. This finding corresponds with the higher levels of acceptance for biotechnology in the Americas, Asia and Oceania shown in Figure 10. It suggests that people who believe biotechnology will be personally beneficial to them are more likely to support its use.

Moral and ethical concerns

In a second follow-up question people were asked to agree or disagree with the statement:

Modifying the genes of plants or animals is ethically and morally wrong.

More than 60 percent of the respondents agreed with this statement, and the responses were more consistent across countries than for the other questions (Figure 13). More than half of the people surveyed in every country except China agreed that genetic modification of plants or animals was ethically and morally wrong. This result seems at odds with the generally high acceptance levels of plant biotechnology revealed in Figures 10 and 11, and may reflect the fact that the statement considered genetic modification of both animals and plants. As shown in Figure 11, people were less likely to accept any form of biotechnology that involved animals.

People were divided along regional and income lines in their ethical and moral judgements regarding genetic modification, with Europeans more likely to consider genetic modification ethically and morally wrong than people from the Americas, Asia and Oceania. OECD residents were also more likely than people from non-OECD countries to have ethical or moral reservations about genetic modification. The regional and income divisions are less sharp than for the other statements, but the overall pattern is similar. Countries where people consider genetic modification morally and ethically wrong also have fewer people who agree that the benefits of biotechnology exceed the risks or that the technology will be of benefit to them.

Consumer-oriented applications

In a second study, Environics International (2001) explored whether products more beneficial to consumers would elicit a higher acceptance rate. They asked 10 000 consumers in ten countries whether they would buy food with GM ingredients if the resulting products were higher in nutrition (Figure 14). Respondents were given the option of continuing to buy the product or to stop buying it if they learned it was genetically modified in this way.

Almost 60 percent of all respondents indicated that they would buy nutritionally enhanced foods. European consumers were less willing than those from other regions, but the geographical differences seem to be less clear than for the other questions. Income level has a stronger relationship with willingness to buy nutritionally enhanced foods. More than 75 percent of consumers in China and India and 66 percent of those in Brazil indicated a willingness to buy more nutritious GM foods. Only a little more than half of consumers in the OECD countries indicated a willingness to buy, and a majority of consumers in Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom would not buy. These results suggest that although new GM crops that provide clear consumer benefits would be welcomed in many countries, they may not overcome consumer opposition in all countries.

Food labelling and biotechnology

Lack of societal and scientific consensus regarding modern agricultural biotechnology has led some to propose that products of this technology be labelled as a way to compromise and move forward. Labelling proponents argue that providing information on food packages will enable individual consumers to choose whether to accept or reject genetic engineering through their food purchasing decisions. Opponents argue that such labels would unfairly bias consumers against foods that have been determined to be safe to eat by national regulatory authorities. Although labelling appears to be a simple solution, it has caused complex debates within and among countries (Chapter 5).

Product versus process

It is generally agreed that genetically modified products must be labelled if they differ from conventional products in terms of their nutritional, organoleptic (i.e. flavour, appearance, texture) and functional properties. There is also agreement that foods that may cause allergic reactions as a result of genetic modification should carry a warning label, if they are marketed at all (FAO/WHO, 2001, section 4.2.2). In these circumstances the focus is on the end product and labelling is done to prevent misbranding and to warn consumers of possible risks (i.e. traditional reasons to label). Note, however, that Codex texts on food safety assessment of GMOs discourage the transfer of genes that would code for allergens (FAO/WHO, 2003e), and therefore such products are unlikely to be approved by national regulatory authorities.

Labelling a product because processes of biotechnology were used in producing the product has been suggested. The criteria for determining whether a product would be labelled if the end product had no discernible difference from the conventional product, contained no detectable traces of DNA, etc., is a topic of debate (FAO/WHO, 2003b).

Often the motivation for process-based labelling is to address social objectives such as offering consumers choices and protecting the environment. Labelling to inform consumers about a process is a relatively new way to use food labels and it is controversial.

Right to know versus need to know

Proponents of labelling of bioengineered foods believe that citizens have a right to know information about the processes used to produce a food. Few would disagree; however, opponents of labelling argue that information that is not essential to protect health and prevent fraud may lead to consumer confusion and could have detrimental effects.

Although there is scant experience regarding consumers' reactions to labelling of genetically engineered foods, there is concern within the food industry that labels would lead consumers to infer that the products were inferior to conventional products.

Research indicates that consumers' decisions about food purchases are influenced by various information sources (Frewer and Shepherd, 1994; Einsiedel, 1998; Knoppers and Mathios, 1998; Pew Initiative, 2002b; Tegene et al., 2003); thus the impact of the food label could depend on the other messages that the public is receiving. The types of public information available regarding biotechnology vary in different countries and among different segments of the population, and thus generalizations about the impact of labelling are difficult to make.

Mandatory versus voluntary labelling

A number of countries have considered whether to require food producers to disclose that a food was produced through biotechnology. Some governments have enacted legislation making labelling mandatory (e.g. the European Union, Australia, China, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and the Russian Federation).

Other countries reject this approach (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, South Africa and the United States). However, some are considering voluntary labelling for those producers wishing to provide this information to consumers.

Negative labelling - this product does not contain genetically engineered ingredients

It has been suggested that labels saying that a food does not contain products of biotechnology (“negative labelling”) would give consumers the option of avoiding genetically engineered foods. This could encourage the development of niche markets for some producers, such as organic farmers.

Opponents of this approach believe that such labels would mislead consumers, causing them to infer that genetically engineered foods are inferior. Others argue that requiring a producer to prove that a product is not genetically modified places an unfair burden on small producers.

Technical, economic and political considerations

To be effective, labelling policies must be supported by standards, testing, certification and enforcement services (Golan, Kuchler and Mitchell, 2000). Labelling presents a number of challenges, which have not been resolved. These include the need to identify the most appropriate definitions and terms to be used in labelling, developing scientific techniques and systems for monitoring the presence of genetically engineered ingredients in foods and enacting the appropriate regulations to enforce a labelling policy.

All of the labelling options have costs that would be borne by food producers and governments initially and could lead to higher food prices and taxes for the public. Ethicists have argued that it would not be appropriate to impose these costs on all consumers because some people may not care about biotechnology (Thompson, 1997; Nuffield Council on Bioethics, 1999). Others argue that mandatory labelling is justified if a large proportion of the population wishes to have the information. Some consumers may be restricted in making food choices by low income or lack of alternative food choices, whereas others may be unable to understand food labels. Thus, labelling in itself may not fully reflect consumer preferences.

Labelling raises potential issues of unfair competition among food producers. In addition to the economic impact within countries, labelling could have an impact on international trade. Exporters of genetically engineered food products have objected to the mandatory labelling policies of importing countries, believing they are unjustified barriers to trade.

Resolution of the debate - Codex

These issues have been the subject of deliberations in the Codex Alimentarius Commission's Committee on Food Labelling for several years. At the Codex Committee on Food Labelling meeting held in May 2003, a working group was established to address them.


Public attitudes towards biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering, are complex and nuanced. Relatively little internationally comparable research on public opinion has been performed, but the available findings reveal significant differences across and within regions. People from poorer countries are, in general, more likely to agree that the benefits of agricultural biotechnology exceed the risks, that it will be beneficial to them and that it is morally acceptable. People from the Americas, Asia and Oceania are far more optimistic about the future of biotechnology than are Africans and Europeans. There are exceptions to these simple patterns, and it is clear that many factors influence attitudes towards biotechnology.

It is apparent that few people express either complete support for or complete opposition to biotechnology. Most people appear to make subtle distinctions among techniques and applications according to a complex set of considerations. Among these considerations are the perceived usefulness of the innovation, its potential to cause or to alleviate harm to humans, animals and the environment, and its moral or ethical acceptability. People from all regions are generally more accepting of medical applications than agricultural ones, and more accepting of agricultural applications for plants than for animals. People are generally more accepting of innovations that provide tangible benefits to consumers or the environment than those aimed at increasing agricultural productivity. These subtle distinctions suggest that public attitudes towards agricultural biotechnology will change as new applications are developed and as more evidence becomes available on the socio-economic, environmental and food safety impacts. More internationally comparable research is needed to identify the multifaceted set of factors that influence people's attitudes towards biotechnology and to understand the ways in which those attitudes are evolving.

Labelling is being considered as a means to bridge differences in public attitudes towards biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering. Although this may seem a simple solution, the debate surrounding the merits and feasibility of labelling is complex. The issue touches on the fundamental rationale for food labelling and has implications for distributional equity, consumers' rights and international trade. Some argue that people have a right to know whether a product was produced through genetic engineering even if it does not differ in any discernible way from its conventional counterpart. Others argue that such labels would mislead consumers, implying a difference where none exists. There are further disagreements over the technical implementation of a labelling requirement and over who should bear the costs. There is currently no international consensus on this issue, although the Codex Alimentarius Commission continues to work towards agreed guidelines for food labelling.

9 In November 2003, Environics International became known as GlobeScan Inc.

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