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Modified perceptions

Thomas J Hoban of North Carolina State University explains why European and American consumers have such different attitudes to biotechnology

The surveys I have conducted over almost a decade document that between two-thirds and three-quarters of American respondents are positive about plant biotechnology. For three years (1992, 1994 and 1997), just over 70 percent of American consumers supported agricultural biotechnology. Surveys in America, Canada and Japan have shown that most consumers recognise the benefits of biotechnology and are willing to buy food developed in this way. But the situation has become different in parts of Europe.

The extent to which people are aware of an issue reflects its level of importance or relevance. Respondents have been asked to rate their own understanding and awareness of biotechnology in the various surveys. The results from America show virtually no change in consumer awareness of biotechnology between 1992 and 1996. Only about one-third of US consumers had heard or read a lot or something about biotechnology. Awareness in America rose a bit in 1997 with all the media attention to the cloning of a sheep. Knowledge levels in many countries are quite low and may be much of the reason for some of the fears about biotechnology.

Much of the public understanding is based on media coverage. That coverage in the USA has tended to be positive and balanced. This is a sharp contrast to the media coverage in the European Union, which has tended to be sensationalised and negative.

Survey results show that providing factual information increases consumer acceptance (at least in America, Canada and Japan). Sources of information vary in terms of their credibility. People have the most trust in independent health and scientific experts. In particular, acceptance increases significantly when American consumers learn that groups such as the American Medical Association, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other independent scientific experts have determined that the foods from biotechnology are safe.

The European public, on the other hand, expresses the most trust in consumer and environmental groups. Their trust in government and industry is much lower than in America.

Labelling is one challenging issue that still faces the food industry. To avoid confusion, the FDA has determined that a food product should be labelled as a product of biotechnology only if it has been changed in some significant way. This policy ensures product availability, while providing consumers with relevant information about food safety or compositional changes. National surveys of American consumers conducted in 1997 and 1999 have found that over three-quarters of consumers supported the FDA labelling policy.

There is some evidence to indicate that American consumers are already overwhelmed by the level of detail on food labels. They are not willing to pay extra to have foods labelled as a product of biotechnology, especially when this information has no meaning. Consumers want and deserve meaningful choice - that is, products that are truly different. They do not need to be confronted by unnecessary duplication of product offerings.

Results of this and other research indicate that biotechnology will not become an issue for most American, Canadian or Japanese consumers. Most American consumers, as well as many others around the world, are truly optimistic about the benefits of biotechnology. We are finding that consumers' responses to foods developed through biotechnology are the same as for any other food. Taste, nutrition, price, safety and convenience are the major issues. How the seeds and food ingredients are produced will be relevant for only a small percentage of elite and activist consumers.

If there is no substantial difference in the food, we need to ask why consumers should be pressured into buying GMO-free processed foods by fear promoted by the media and activists. Don't most people have more important things to worry about?

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999

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