American consumer support for the use of biotechnology in agriculture and food production declined from 71 percent favorable in 1992 to 48 percent in 2002. Still, that's higher than in Europe, where support has fallen to 27 percent in Great Britain and Poland.

However, the loss of support is not necessarily associated with increasing consumer awareness about biotechnology, according to Thomas Hoban, Extension Sociologist, North Carolina State University. Hoban spoke at the Arkansas State University Agriculture-Business Conference in Jonesboro.

For example, today only 36 percent of American consumers know that foods produced with biotechnology are already in stores. Sixty-two percent insist they have not eaten GM foods, while 24 percent say they have.

Lack of a GM IQ hasn't stopped American consumers from forming opinions, however. Eighty percent believe that serious accidents involving GM foods are bound to happen. Seventy-four percent believe that it's impossible to predict what will happen with GM crops.

Almost three-fourths of American consumers believe that most GM foods were created because scientists were able to make them, not because the public wanted them. Sixty-eight percent believed that companies involved in creating GM crops believe profits are more important than safety.

Hoban cited several studies, including a survey of 35,000 citizens in 35 countries. That survey indicated significant variation in public support for biotechnology depending on how it is used. Many are very opposed to the use of biotechnology involving an animal or animal gene.

Eighty-five percent approved the use of biotechnology for new human medicines; 74 percent approved biotech crops to produce plastics; 71 percent supported biotech's role in reducing chemical use; and 68 percent approved of more nutritious crops created through biotech. Only 35 percent approved of biotech to increase animal productivity.

Here in the United States, according to a study conducted by Hoban, 51 percent of those surveyed in 2000 felt that insect-protected crops were acceptable. The percentage has declined from 67 percent in 1994.

In 2000, only 38 percent of U.S. consumers favored biotechnology for developing disease-resistant animals, while 39 percent found it unacceptable. Almost 60 percent say the use of biotechnology to create faster-growing fish is unacceptable.

Two-thirds of Americans favor more nutritious potatoes made with a corn gene, but that drops to 25 percent when potatoes are made more nutritious with an animal gene. Thirty-nine percent favor leaner chicken with an animal gene. But only 10 percent accept leaner chicken made with a human gene.

Most U.S. consumers (53 percent) believe that animal biotechnology is wrong, while one in four believe that plant biotechnology is wrong.

There are several reasons why animal biotechnology is less acceptable, according to Hoban.

  • People worry a lot about animal pain and suffering. People love their pets and care about wildlife.

  • Trend toward vegetarianism and animal rights (especially among young women).

  • Animals can move around once released into the environment.

  • Once we modify animals, it could be a slippery slope to genetically modified people. Animal biotechnology sounds bad.

  • The federal government is unprepared for the arrival of cloned or GM animals.

Hoban noted that American consumers expect more FDA regulation of GM food. “The potential benefits of biotechnology will only be realized if society accepts the science and new products as safe and ethical. Such acceptance is not guaranteed.”

Few Europeans are educated about biotechnology, according to studies. For example, over 60 percent believed that ordinary tomatoes have no genes. About the same percentage believed this in 1996.

Fifty-three percent of Europeans believe that GM crops pose risks to the environment, while 55 percent believe GM crops will upset the balance of nature. That's down from 62 percent and 63 percent, respectively, from the year before.

There are valid reasons for European Union resistance to GMOs, according to Hoban:

  • Biotechnology arrived on the EU market on the heels of mad cow disease and other problems.

  • EU consumers recognize no benefits from the first generation of GMOs.

  • Questions remain for many about the long-term safety for the environment and human health.

  • Given no clear benefits and the concern over risks, the EU position seems reasonable to their consumers.

  • Europeans resent Americanization in all its forms, but particularly when it comes to food.

    Hoban also listed 10 reasons why the world does not want biotechnology:

    1. Europe has seized the high ground in the GMO debate.

    2. Activist groups have found that GMOs can be an effective fundraising and public relations tool.

    3. Experts focus on logic and science, while lay public relies on emotion and ethics.

    4. Initial products only benefit the biotech industry and large-scale U.S. farms.

    5. The United States is seen as trying to force-feed GMOs to the European Union and the rest of the world.

    6. Food industry has been caught in the middle with nothing to gain and much to lose.

    7. Developing countries resent being pawns in the United States/EU conflict — need assistance.

    8. People value nature for its own sake and have legitimate concerns about biotech.

    9. Proponents have hyped benefits, while downplaying risk and stifling dissent.

    10. Trust in biotechnology is directly related to trust in the U.S. government (which is down).

    Hoban suggested several ways to prevent further rejection of biotechnology:

  • Recognize that concerned consumers and food companies are already moving toward organic foods.

  • Speed up development of crops with real consumer benefits (healthier oils, better taste, shelf life).

  • Don't cause any more problems for the food industry.

  • Insure that the FDA maintains a strong regulatory program to insure food safety.

  • Make sure that all farmers comply with the requirements for IRM, identity preservation and regulatory approval (no planting until global approval).

  • Sound science is only one factor influencing public perception and public policy. For many people this is no longer enough.

  • People choose food based on emotion not logic; consumers want and will demand choice.

  • Recognize that perception is reality. Education about benefits will not calm concerns over risk.

  • Biotechnology benefits must exceed risks; but few benefits will outweigh moral objections (as with animal biotechnology).

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com