Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence

Letter from Professor John Durant Assistant Director (Head of Science Communication), National Museum of Science and Industry

  The use of genetic modification (GM) in agriculture has been the subject of much public debate and not a little public dispute in Europe in recent years. My principal interest in the subject concerns the nature and significance of public perceptions of GM foods across Europe, particularly in relation to the policy-making process. For the past two years, I have been Contractor for a European Commission Concerted Action research programme on "Biotechnology and the European Public". This programme embraces a "Eurobarometer" random sample survey of public attitudes to biotechnology in all member states of the European Union (EU), together with parallel national studies of media coverage and public policy.

  First, I should like to urge upon the importance of taking into account public attitudes towards GM in agriculture. The reasons for this are obvious: economically, the viability of GM in agriculture will depend upon the willingness of European consumers to purchase GM products; and politically, the viability of particular regulations of GM agriculture will depend upon their commanding at least a minimum level of public credibility and public support.

  Attached, please find a short published report in Nature (Appendix) summarising some of the more striking findings from the most recent Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology. I should like to draw the ECC Sub-Committee D's attention to the following key points:

  1. European attitudes towards GM as a whole are complex. Medical, plant and animal applications of GM attract widely differing levels of public support across the EU as a whole; and particular applications of GM attract widely differing levels of public support in different EU member states.

  2. Across the EU as a whole, medical applications of GM attract most support, plant applications attract intermediate levels of support, and animal applications attract least support. The UK is fairly typical of the EU as a whole in this respect.

  3. Across biotechnology as a whole, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain tend to be most supportive; while Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden tend to be most critical. The UK occupies an intermediate position.

  4. A decisive factor influencing levels of public support for particular applications of GM is public perceptions of the usefulness of these applications. Where applications are perceived as useful, they are generally also perceived as acceptable, irrespective of whether they are also perceived as being risky.

  5. The reason why GM in agriculture attracts only moderate levels of public support is that significant numbers of people do not perceive it as being particularly useful. Those opposing GM in agriculture for this reason tend to be older, female, with lower levels of educational attainment and lower levels of trust in public authorities. Technical knowledge of biotechnology is not an important factor here.

  6. The Eurobarometer survey (like other, even more recent surveys) suggests that the European public wishes to be consulted about GM and that it wishes to see clear labelling of GM food products. In the UK, for example, 55 per cent of the sample disagreed with the proposition that "biotechology is so complex that public consultation is a waste of time"; and 82 per cent disagreed with the proposition that, "It is not worth putting special labels on GM foods". I suggest that the following conclusions may be drawn from our research to date:

    (i)  The public are currently rather ambivalent about GM in agriculture. Doubts about the real need for GM food products are serving to reinforce underlying anxieties about risk.

    (ii)  The public are currently rather distrustful of many of the institutions (especially governmental and industrial institutions) that have responsibility for the provision and regulation of GM products.

    (iii)  The public are strongly in favour of being given the opportunity to choose whether or not to purchase GM food products through clear and effective labelling.

    (iv)  If industry wishes to secure public support for GM in agriculture, the most important things it should do are: first, to provide GM food products that possess clear and demonstrable consumer benefits; and second, to provide clear and effective consumer choice.

    (v)  If government wishes to regulate GM in agriculture effectively, the most important things it should do are: first, to provide for effective public consultation in the course of policy-development; and second, to secure agreement with industry and consumer organisations on the provision of effective consumer choice. I trust that this evidence may be useful to the Lord Chairman of ECC Sub-Committee D and his colleagues as they conduct their investigation.

John Durant

8 June 1998

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