The first commercial exploitation of genetic technologies in the 1980s sparked a continuing debate over their acceptability, ethics and implications for society. Since this time, cloning, genetic screening and gene therapy have become topics of an intense discussion about how to use the potential of biotechnology in the best interests of the public, while criticism and outrage are mostly directed against genetically modified crops in the food supply. While GM crops are popular with growers and producers, the public is becoming increasingly uneasy about their potential environmental and health risks. Opposition started initially in Europe, particularly in the UK, but as a result of various environmental and consumer health scare stories in the media, there is now also growing disquiet among consumers in the USA and Asia.
It is critical to understand that there is a void between the actual or statistical risk that can be verified scientifically and the risk that is perceived by the public
Lurid accounts of ‘Frankenfood’, vandalising of field trials of GM crops and retailers withdrawing GM foods from their shelves are the consequence. A number of scientific publications have been exploited by anti‐GM lobbyists to support the notion that GM crops pose a risk to health and the environment (Table 1). Although this served to highlight potential risks or drawbacks of GM crops, there were equally newsworthy events about positive aspects that failed to make it to the front pages of the press. These included the creation of the so‐called ‘Golden Rice’ to combat Vitamin A deficiency (Ye et al., 2000), Oxfam acknowledging that GM crops could be of benefit to farmers in developing countries, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the UK generally endorsing the development of GM crops, the British House of Lords indicating that the benefits of GM crops outweighed any potential risks (House of Lords, 1999) and The Princess Royal expressing support for GM crops. But ‘No danger from GM crops!’ obviously does not make a good headline and negative coverage of GM crops continues to predominate. In the midst of media hype about the so‐called ‘GM crisis’ the average citizen finds it difficult to obtain credible information to decide whether GM foods are safe or unsafe.
Scientists involved in the debate about GM technologies often feel frustrated that the public ignores scientific facts and bases its opinions on illogical assumptions, such as those presented by some anti‐GM lobbyists. But it is critical to understand that there often is a void between the actual or statistical risk that can be verified scientifically and the risk that is perceived by the public. Scientists depend on risk assessments, based on scientific evidence and statistical data, in which risk is defined as magnitude—how bad the problem could potentially be—multiplied by probability—how likely it is to happen. In contrast, the public's method of evaluating the risks of new technologies or harmful products is a cognitive process. Sandman (1994) developed the following formula to explain this phenomenon: perceived risk = hazard + outrage. The greater the perceived risk, the more people demand risk reduction and insist on stringent regulation to achieve zero risk. But the public often does not realise that zero risk is impossible to achieve and that policies consistent with a zero risk philosophy come at a great cost which is unnecessary to maintain environmental and consumer welfare.
The public often does not realise that zero risk is impossible to achieve and that policies consistent with a zero risk philosophy come at a great cost
For GM crops, the perceived risk is high because of the high level of outrage, and, in ignoring outrage, scientists tend to underestimate perceived risk. In order to communicate the actual risk to the public, it is therefore necessary to understand and focus on the outrage factor, which is partly a function of negative press campaigning by environmental groups and a lack of knowledge. Another reason is a general mistrust of scientists, which is based on the scientists’ unwillingness to disclose and discuss the implications of their research in public.
Several recent polls have tried to measure the extent of perceived risk of GM crops and the reasons for this. The last Eurobarometer Survey of more than 16,000 people from 16 nations (INRA‐ECOSA, 2000) showed that perception of risk was greater for biotechnology in food production than for many other areas of biotechnology. While the perceived risks of GM crops remain high, it is unlikely that there will be increased acceptance of this technology. Though the actual risk from a GM product is immutable, the level of public acceptability could change when the benefits appear to outweigh the perceived risk, thus reducing the level of outrage. Scientists and regulators should therefore strive to communicate the benefits of GM crops as well as the nature and outcomes of risk assessments. This will be critical not only for current GM crops but also for future applications of GM technology.
Scientists and regulators should strive to communicate the benefits of GM crops as well as the nature and outcomes of risk assessments.
As the debate over GM crops and products has intensified, many scientists have become involved in increasing the public understanding of genetic manipulation. These initiatives are based on a ‘deficit model’, which assumes that if the public knew more about GM science, it would be more supportive of the technology. Those involved in public understanding initiatives should be aware of the current level of knowledge, and assess how the public understanding relates to the acceptance of GM technology. In fact, recent surveys suggest that, while awareness of GM foods is high, the public understanding of biotechnology is low. The Angus Reid Poll (Angus Reid Group Inc., 1999), conducted in eight countries, showed that 79% of those surveyed had read or heard about GM foods. This figure rose to over 90% in the UK and Germany and was lowest in the USA (66%) and Brazil (39%). These results appear to be related to the level of press coverage of the GM crop debate.
Another Angus Reid Poll (Angus Reid Group Inc., 2000) showed that consumers are also uncertain of the benefits of GM crops. Survey respondents believed that GM crop technology mainly increases production efficiency or yields (31%), improves food quality (15%) and leads to a reduction in pesticides (15%). 10% of respondents said they were unsure of any benefit from GM foods, while 25% believed there were no advantages. The same survey suggested that food safety/health concerns had the greatest perceived risk (31%), while a reduction in food quality was of least concern (4%).
Although the strength of the relationship between acceptance and understanding remains unclear, the survey data make a compelling case for educating the public about science
A further problem is that high levels of awareness do not necessarily reflect a better knowledge about a topic (Hoban, 1998). In Europe, awareness of problems related to GM crops is high (Angus Reid Group Inc., 1999), but knowledge of the science behind it is relatively poor. The 2000 Eurobarometer Survey showed that 35% of respondents believed that ‘ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do’. Of those questioned, 24% believed the statement ‘if a person eats a GM fruit, their genes could be modified as a result’. Other surveys in the USA and Japan show that provision of factual information indeed increases consumer acceptance (Hoban, 1998). Although the strength of the relationship between acceptance and understanding remains unclear, the survey data make a compelling case for educating the public about the science so that they better understand the nature of genetic modification as well as the methods of scientific risk assessment. However, those who aim to increase public acceptance of GM crops and products are unlikely to do so solely through increasing public understanding.
In light of previous misguided safety reassurances from scientists and politicians about thalidomide, beef/BSE and nuclear power, it is not surprising that trust in scientific and governmental sources has declined
The context in which information is supplied and received, as well as the source of this information, is as likely to determine public reaction as the information itself. Indeed, credibility and trust in information sources play a major role in how consumers react to novel products (Frewer et al., 1995). Of those polled in the 2000 Eurobarometer Survey, 26% said that they mainly trust consumer protection organisations, the medical profession (24%) and environmental organisations (14%). Other information sources received only low scores in this evaluation: universities (7%), the media (4%) and political parties (0%). However, in light of previous misguided safety reassurances from scientists and politicians about thalidomide, beef/BSE and nuclear power, it is not surprising that trust in scientific and governmental sources has declined. Less than half (45%) of the respondents in the 2000 Eurobarometer Survey felt that their governments are regulating biotechnology well enough, compared to 29% who felt the opposite and 26% who were unsure. Those seen as stakeholders in GM technology, including scientists who are believed to be influenced by corporate research funding, are not seen as providers of accurate information (Pollara and Earnscliffe Research, 1999). It is therefore vital that scientists and regulators retain their independence and objectivity in relation to GM technologies, and that such objectivity is conspicuous to society in general.
While the lack of knowledge and public trust in scientists or regulators is more or less the same for all applications of GM technologies, it is particularly damaging for GM crops; in contrast to biomedical research, GM crops are not seen as having direct benefits for consumers. Furthermore, there is a lack of knowledge about the problems arising from conventional breeding that makes it difficult for the consumer to weigh the risks and benefits of conventional versus new methods. For instance, the public is often unaware of the extensive safety tests GM crops are subject to in contrast to the lax testing of traditionally bred crops. It is crucial that those involved in public education convey not only the health, nutritional and environmental benefits of using GM technology in crop and food production to the public, but also present the potential problems that may exist with more traditional methods.
Furthermore, scientists, regulatory agencies and the public need to become engaged in a discussion about the methods for assessing and weighing the risks of new technologies. While scientists can generate the necessary information, it is up to individuals and society to select the level of risk they are prepared to accept and what regulatory processes are needed to minimise risks. Scientists must acknowledge the social contexts affecting risk perception and that public opinion must be taken into account. To overcome public mistrust, it is critical that the regulatory process is transparent and open, and that there is maximum public participation at all stages.
While scientists can generate the necessary information, it is up to individuals and society to select the level of risk they are prepared to accept
For GM food, this means that labelling will be one of the most critical factors influencing public acceptance. Some believe that there is no need for labelling as there is no evidence suggesting that GM food is different from a conventional product (Caulder, 1998). But consumers in the EU place immense value on their freedom to choose whether to consume GM products or not, and perceive a greater risk if they are involuntarily exposed to a GM product. Failure to label GM products is therefore likely to reinforce the belief that there is something to hide. Effective labelling could also convey the benefits of a GM product, which may help to increase consumer acceptance.
As long as public understanding of GM technology remains relatively low, opposition to GM crops is likely to remain high. Thus, increasing the public understanding of the science behind GM technology is critical in raising levels of consumer acceptance. But consumers will only be able to make informed choices about GM crops and products if they have a better understanding of the technology. The challenge for scientists now is to move from a ‘deficit model’ towards an ‘engagement model’, in which all interested parties can debate the social impact of scientific advancement. This can only be achieved by increasing public understanding of the benefits of GM technology, by increasing the understanding of methods of risk assessment and management, by securing consumer choice and by employing effective, transparent regulation in which the consumer is acknowledged to be a major stakeholder.
- Copyright © 2001 European Molecular Biology Organization