Letter from Professor John Durant Assistant
Director (Head of Science Communication), National Museum of Science
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
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
(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.
8 June 1998