Thomas J. Hoban, Ph.D.
Survey research over the past decade shows that biotechnology is not likely to become an important issue for most American consumers. Consumers find biotechnology acceptable when they believe it offers benefits and it is safe. Surveys have consistently found that a majority of American consumers are willing to buy insect-protected food crops developed through biotechnology that use fewer chemical pesticides, as well as more nutritious foods. American consumers also appreciate the role that biotechnology can play in feeding the world. Research shows that European consumers are much less supportive of all biotechnology applications.
Surveys since 1992 show that relatively few U.S. consumers have heard or read much about biotechnology. News about the cloned sheep pushed awareness to 50 percent in March 1997. Surveys in the first three months of 2000 show that awareness has fallen back to just over one- third in the United States. Such trends reflect the fact that most people get their information about biotechnology from the media. Unfortunately, many consumers also do not understand some fundamental principles of biology. European consumer awareness is somewhat higher, but knowledge is still low.
Media coverage in the United States has generally been balanced (which helps account for our relatively high levels of acceptance). This is in sharp contrast to the European media, which have played upon fear of the unknown. The European media have also tended to accept opponents' claims without question. Another issue is that many people no longer have a connection to agriculture. In fact, research has shown that many consumers are unaware that all foods are derived from plants or animals that already have been genetically modified through traditional (but imprecise) breeding methods.
American consumers look to health professionals and scientific experts for credible information, but place relatively little trust in the activists who oppose biotechnology. Research shows that acceptance increases significantly when American consumers learn that organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have determined that biotech-derived foods are safe. In contrast, European consumers express the most trust in those groups that oppose biotechnology. They have much less confidence in government, industry, or even scientists. American culture is more supportive and rewarding of new technology. Europeans tend to view food differently from U.S. consumers. In fact, some Europeans reject all American food products. Europeans also want to protect their small farms to maintain open space and rural employment. Such forces underlie much of the European anxiety about agricultural biotech especially since it is seen as an "American invention."
The food industry plays a vital role in shaping consumers' attitudes and appetite for new food items. This is particularly true for the products developed with biotechnology. Opponents have waged an aggressive campaign to pressure the industry into publicly rejecting biotechnology. In such cases, companies have been forced to take steps against their own beliefs and long- term interests. I have recently completed telephone interviews with over 130 key leaders from leading food processing and retailing companies. This provides considerable insights into the real perspectives of the industry.
Most of the industry leaders interviewed are quite enthusiastic about the benefits of biotechnology -- especially in terms of increased food availability, enhanced nutrition, and environmental protection. Most feel that biotechnology has already provided benefits to consumers. Almost all recognize that foods developed through biotechnology have already been part of consumers' everyday diet. They clearly do not agree with most of the opponents claims and tend to have almost no trust in such groups.
Their main concerns involve lack of consumer acceptance -- not the safety of the foods. They express high levels of confidence in the science and the regulatory process. In fact, almost none feel that biotechnology should not be used because of uncertain, potential risks. Most food industry leaders do not feel it is necessary to have special labels on foods developed through biotechnology. They express concerns that such labels would be perceived as a warning by consumers. They also worried that the need to segregate commodities would pose financial and logistical burdens on everyone in the system including consumers. Food industry leaders recognize a major need to educate the public about biotechnology. They look to third parties, such as university and government scientists to provide such leadership.
IMPLICATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Biotechnology is at a crossroads in terms of public acceptance. Many US consumers have not yet formed a solid opinion on this complex issue. International developments over the next year will certainly have a major influence on the long-term viability of biotechnology. The future of the world food supply depends upon how well scientists, government, and the industry are able to communicate with consumers about the benefits and safety of the technology.
Several major initiatives are under way to strengthen the regulatory process and communicate more effectively with consumers. Both the USDA and FDA have opened their regulatory systems to outside review and public comment. The biotechnology industry, university scientists and others are also conducting educational programs. These should further strengthen consumer confidence. This partnership among the public and private sectors will support these emerging technologies that will prove vital to the U.S. economy and the developing world in the new millennium. Even Europe will soon find the real benefits of biotechnology compelling.
Research shows that consumers will accept biotech foods if they see a benefit to themselves or society and if the price is right. Their responses to foods developed through biotechnology are basically the same as for any other food: taste, nutrition, price, safety and convenience are the major factors that influence our decisions about which foods to eat. How seeds and food ingredients are developed will only be relevant for a relatively small group of concerned, consumers. The food industry needs to focus on what it does best: namely producing and distributing value added foods that consumers want.
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Last Updated on 5/4/00
By Karen L. Benbrook