Select Committee on European Communities Second Report - Written Evidence



Throughout Europe, there is widespread lack of trust in the ability of governments and other public authorities to deal effectively with people's concern about biotechnology applications.


  Many Europeans are uneasy about modern biotechnology, particularly about new genetic technologies. Although there is widespread support for "traditional" medical applications in the fields of diagnosis and treatment, few approve of the use of trans-genic animals for research or for applications such as transplantation of organs into humans (Fig. 1). There is also a striking mismatch between the traditional concern of regulators with issues of risk and safety, and that of the public, which centres on questions of moral acceptability. These are some of the conclusions to emerge from the latest Eurobarometer survey, designed to find out what people think about biotechnology (see box on following page). The main lesson of the survey is that public confidence in emerging applications of biotechnology cannot be taken for granted.

  Conventional wisdom holds that knowledge is a crucially important determinant of support for science and technology—the more informed the public, the more likely it is to be supportive (see, for example, ref. 1).1[6] But comparison of the new (1996) Euro-barometer survey with earlier ones in 1993 (ref. 2)2[7] and 1991 indicates that although the public's knowledge of relevant basic biology has increased slightly, optimism about the contribution of biotechnology and genetic engineering to improving our way of life has actually declined. Furthermore, the new survey shows that knowledge is poorly correlated with support for all the applications described in Fig. 1.

  Thus, as already discovered by other industries trying to introduce controversial technologies (such as the nuclear industry), more knowledge does not necessarily lead to greater public acceptance. But the situation with respect to biotecnology is more complex. The new survey suggests, for example, that people with greater knowledge are more likely to express a definite opinion about biotechnology; but this opinion can be positive or negative. It has been claimed that "mismatches" between scientific and lay assessments of risk are responsible for public resistance to new technologies.3[8] Public debates about some aspects of biotechnology have been dominated by the issue of risk, whereas in others moral considerations have been more prominent. Figure 1 shows that people see all biotechnology applications as potentially useful, but those involving crop plants, food production, the use of transgenic animals for research and xenotransplantation (trans-species organ transplants) are seen to involve risks; whereas only the use of transgenic animals for research and xenotransplantation are thought of as morally unacceptable. At first sight, this pattern implies that use, risk and moral acceptability are all likely to be strongly correlated with overall levels of support for specific areas of biotechnology.

  Surprisingly, however, multiple-regression analysis indicates that although moral acceptability and use are strong predictors of support as measured by encouragement (moral acceptability, average B = 0.54; use, average B = 0.35, where B is an index of the strength of association), risk has very low predictive value (average B = 0.04). Only in the case of food production does risk perception appear to be more than a trivially small predictor of encouragement. The pattern of results across the six applications in Fig. 1 suggests that perceptions of usefulness, riskiness and moral acceptability could be combined to shape overall support in the following way. First, usefulness is a precondition of support; second, people seem prepared to accept some risk as long as there is a perception of usefulness and no moral concern; but third, and crucially, moral doubts act as a veto irrespective of people's views on use and risk.

  The finding that risk is less significant than moral acceptability in shaping public perceptions of biotechnology holds true in each EU country and across all six specific applications described in Fig. 1. This has important implications for policy-making. In general, policy debates about biotechnology have been couched in terms of potential risks to the environment and/or human health. If, however, people are more swayed by moral considerations, public concern is unlikely to be alleviated by technically based reassurances and/or regulatory initiatives that deal exclusively with the avoidance of harm.

  It is because of the issues of risk and safety that modern biotechnology is so extensively regulated in Europe. In the new survey, people were asked which bodies they thought best placed to regulate modern biotechnology (Fig. 2). On average, more Europeans preferred international organisations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation to either their own national or pan-European public bodies. Self-regulation by scientific organisations also rated highly. These results confirm the trend, observed by many others, of an increasing lack of confidence in national political institutions. They also show, however, that biotechnology is seen as having transnational consequences which national bodies are powerless to influence.

  The survey highlights public concern that may have arisen as a result of lack of trust. For example, 74 per cent of respondents consider that genetically modified food should be labelled; 60 per cent believe that there should be public consultation about new developments in biotechnology; 53 per cent say that current regulations are insufficient to protect people from the risks of biotechnology; and 39 per cent think that religious authorities should be involved in the regulation of biotechnology. If biotechnologists and industry regulators are to command public confidence, they must incorporate openness and wide consultation into the policy-making process.

  Do people discriminate among information sources for different issues? We asked people to select from a list of 12 institutions the one they thought most likely to be honest about two areas of modern biotechnology (Fig. 3). For new genetically modified food crops, people had most trust in environmental organisations, whereas for xenotransplantation people preferred the medical profession. Thus, people do discriminate among sources of information, and trust is strongly issue-specific. The medical profession remains one of the most widely trusted institutions within its own sphere of competence, as to a lesser extent do environmental organisations in theirs. National political institutions fare badly in public estimation.

  In an increasingly complex world, it has been said that trust is a functional substitute for knowledge. Particularly in situations of high uncertainty, lack of trust could become an important determinant of the way issues are viewed: in the absence of trust, perceived risks and moral dangers proliferate and appear greater. For all three main groups of biotechnologies discussed here (medical agricultural/food, and animal experiments), people who express trust in public authorities tend also to have a systematically more positive view: they are more likely to say that biotechnology should be encouraged; to regard it as morally acceptable; and to view it as less risky. The largest effect of trust is found in the area of agricultural and food biotechnologies, which is of course highly relevant to current public debates on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and genetically modified foods.

  Thus far, we have treated Europe as if it were a single entity, which of course it is not. In Austria, for example, the opposite of the trend described in the paragraph above applies: those who express trust in public authorities tend also to express opposition to agricultural and food biotechnologies. Indeed, the Austrian government is explicitly opposed to the introduction of genetically modified foods such a soya and maize into the European market[9]. The countries where support for the biotechnology applications described here is greatest are Portugal and Spain, followed by Belgium, Finland and Greece (shown in red in Table 1), whereas those where support is least are Austria and Germany, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Luxembourg (shown in blue).

  Some national characteristics associated with support and opposition are shown in Table 1. In general (and with the significant exception of Finland), we find that the public in supportive countries tends to have low levels of contact, low levels of knowledge, a "menacing" image (see Table 1 footnote for explanation) and many expectations. There is also a relatively relaxed public attitude to risk and regulation. This is a pattern that we might expect to find in less industrialised countries that do not possess a well-developed biotechnology industry and where there is not much public participation in debate about biotechnology.

  By contrast, the public in countries where most people oppose biotechnology tends to have high levels of contact, high knowledge, a matter-of-fact image and low-to-moderate expectations. At the same time, there tends to be public anxiety about risk and regulation. This is a pattern we might expect in more industrialised countries that possess a well-developed biotechnology industry and a relatively high level of public participation in debate. Once again, however, there are exceptions. Austria, for example, combines high contact with low knowledge and "menacing" image. (Apart from Austria, the countries where most people oppose biotechnology were among the first to introduce biotechnology regulations.)

  Across the European Union, then, it seems that some countries in which biotechnology is best established are among the least supportive, whereas others in which the science and industry are in their infancy are the most supportive. This result is not as paradoxical as it appears: in the former group, familiarity with biotechnology has provided greater opportunity for the emergence of concern; whereas in the latter, the potential economic importance of biotechnology is paramount.

  However, it would be naive to pretend that the detailed pattern set out in Table 1 has easy or obvious explanations without a far better understanding of national cultures than surveys alone can provide. In Austria, for example, various factors, including general concern for environmental issues and a relatively recent encounter with biotechnology, coincident with anxiety over membership of the European Union, have conspired to raise the temperature of public debate about biotechnology almost to boiling point.

  For now, it is perhaps enough to point out that these Eurobarometer findings echo the theme of the "risk society" as discussed by writers such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens[10].[11] Like the European public in our survey, these authors do not find the language of objective risk assessment adequate arguing that risks are fundamentally moral and political. Our data suggest that large sections of the European public are deeply ambivalent about much of modern biotechnology. The prevailing focus of this ambivalence appears to be moral, a collection of anxieties about unforeseen dangers that may be involved in a range of technologies that are commonly perceived to be "unnatural".


  The Eurobarometer on Biotechnology (46.1) was conducted during October and November 1996. The survey conducted in each EU (European Union) country used a multi-stage random sampling procedure and provided a statistically representative sample of national residents aged 15 and over. The total sample within the EU was 16,246 respondents (about 1,000 per EU country). The survey questionnaire was designed by the authors as part of a larger study involving the comparative analysis of public perceptions, media coverage and public policy in relation to biotechnology from 1973 to the present.

  Members of the Concerted Action who contributed to this article are: W Wagner & H Torgerson, Austria; E Einsiedel, Canada; E Jelsoe, H Fredrickson and J Lassen, Denmark; T Rusanen, Finland; D Boy and S de Cheveigne, France; J Hampel, Germany; A Stathopoulou, Greece; A Allansdottir, Italy: C Midden, Netherlands; T Nielsen, Norway; A Przestalski and T Twardowski, Poland; B Fjaestad, S Olsson and A Olofsson, Sweden; G Gaskell, J Durant, M Bauer and M Liakopoulos, UK.

  The project is co-ordinated by M Bauer, J Durant and G Gaskell.

National attitudes to biotechnology

Attitudes to applications of biotechnology
Low encouragementA D DK Lux S FGR E PHigh encouragement
Transgenic animalsUK IRL NL I B
and FIN
Transgenic animals
Low encouragementA, D DK LUX S IRLHigh encouragement
Medical NL UK I F B
Low encouragementA D DK Lux S F NL UK IRLB FIN E P High encouragement
Agricultural and food I GRAgricultural and food
National characteristics
High contactA D DK Lux F I NL UK BIRL GR E PLow contact
High knowledgeDK S NL UK FIN D Lux F I BA IRL GR E P Low knowledge
Matter-of-fact imageDK S NL UK FIN Lux F I B EA D IRL GR P Menacing image
Low positive expectationsA D NL Lux S I UK
DK IRL F E P High positive expectations
Low negative expectationsA S NL FIN D Lux DK I
UK F GR E P High negative expectations
Anxious about risk and regulationA S DK I F D Lux B GR PIRL NL UK
Relaxed about risk and regulation

Summary of aggregate scores for individual EU countries on a series of indicators in the survey. A, Austria; B, Belgium; D, Germany; DK, Denmark; E, Spain; F, France; FIN, Finland; GR, Greece; I, Italy; IRL, Ireland; Lux, Luxembourg; NL, Netherlands; P, Portugal; S, Sweden; UK, United Kingdom, Red, countries supporting biotechnology; blue, countries opposing it (dark shades indicate stronger support or opposition): black, mixed support and opposition. Top, countries are scored negative, neutral or positive on three main groups of biotechnological applications: transgenic animals (animals for research + animals for xenotransplantation); medical (genetic testing + medicines or vaccines); and agricultural and food (crop plants + food production). Bottom, countries are scored high, medium or low on six national characteristics.
 "Contact" is derived from two questions designed to measure whether people had heard or talked about biotechnology before. "Knowledge" is based on a scale of factual questions about relevant basic biology. "Image" captures popular imagery associated with biotechnology. Respondents were invited to agree or disagree with propositions such as: "ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do"; and "by eating a genetically modified fruit, a person's genes could become modified". These questions were not primarily intended to capture levels of objective knowledge but to measure the extent to which respondents possessed menacing images of biotechnological products. "Positive and negative expectations" were based on a series of 10 paired questions describing a positive and a negative outcome of biotechnology that could happen in the next 20 years. A positive outcome was "curing most genetic diseases" whereas the negative one was "creating dangerous new diseases". Relaxed about risk means that respondents believe that current regulations are sufficient and agree that some risk must be accepted in the interests of economic competitiveness.

5   Abbott, A, Nature 386, 745 (1997). Back

6   Beck, U, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, (Sage, London, 1992). Back

7   Giddens, A, The Consequences of Modernity (Cambridge Univ Press, 1990). Back

8   Concepts and principles underpinning safety evaluations of food derived from modern biotechnology. EOCD Group of National Experts on Safety in Biotechnology; COM/ENV/DSTI/EC/BT(91) 80/Rev 1; 1992. Back

9   Council Regulation (EC) No. 1139/98, Official Journal of the European Communities, 3 June 1998. Back

10   BRC/FDF/IGD press release, 20 November 1997. Back

11   The presence of an ampicillin resistance gene in the Novartis maize led the UK's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes to recommend that the maize should not be used for human or animal food. This was because of the risks of the resistance gene being transferred into bacteria in the intestine and compromising antibiotic therapy. The concerns of the UK were over ruled by the Commission but have led to Austria and Luxembourg imposing bans on the Novartis maize. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999