By Cheryl Stubbendieck
Vice President of Public Relations
Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation
A land-grant university researcher who has studied public attitudes toward biotechnology since 1989 says the public isn't nearly as interested in the topic as people in agriculture think.
But if you can pique the public' interest, many people want to know more.
Dr. Thomas A. Hoban, North Carolina State University, has conducted and reviewed research on perceptions of biotechnology for more than 10 years, from the time it was an emerging technology through the end of 1999. His own research was designed to track and anticipate public reaction to making genetic modifications to plants and animals.
American consumers are more accepting of biotechnology than Europeans, he says, but communications is vital to increasing acceptance and must be based on understanding of public attitudes. Men are more likely than women to feel positively toward biotechnology, studies show, but Hoban notes men may be less involved in making food choices for the family. College-educated persons also are more accepting, perhaps because their scientific literacy may be greater, and they recognize that traditional methods of genetic manipulation through hybridization and cross breeding also result in changed plants and animals.
Generally, consumers are more comfortable with the idea of using biotechnology to modify plants, rather than animals, because they perceive greater moral implications in changing animals, according to Hoban. And very importantly, the public sees "biotechnology" as a neutral term and responds more favorably to it then terms with emotional overtones, such as "Genetically Modified Organisms" or "genetically engineered" plants or animals.
Although it is a concern in the agricultural community, research shows biotechnology is not a top issue in the American consciousness, Hoban says. However, focus group research shows consumers are interested in learning about the benefits of biotechnology. Consumers perceive benefits in three areas: personal, through improved health for themselves or a loved one; environmental, in reduced need for pesticides; and social, improved crops and livestock that will help fight world hunger.
Consumers want more information about biotechnology, but emphasize that they must be able to trust it. U.S. consumers have a good deal of confidence in their government to ensure food safety and want credible, science-based information about biotechnology, rather than emotional stories based on fear of the unknown, Hoban says. Land-grant universities can serve this need, he suggests.
From Hoban's research, it seems clear the agricultural industry should modify its approach to biotechnology. Say "biotechnology plants" or biotechnology animals," rather than use a trendy, insider term, such as GMO. Explain the science behind conventional, as well as biotechnical approaches to improving crops and livestock. And emphasize the benefits for the public, rather than just those for agriculture. These changes can help keep discussion of an important public issue at the level of science, facts and impacts, rather than at the emotional level of scare stories.