Public Opinion

Public opinion is reflected in government policy and in the decisions that consumers make. Its importance can be seen particularly clearly in the area of agricultural biotechnology. Just ask the Europeans. During most of the 1990s European regulators were approving commercial production of genetically modified (GM) foods and consumers were buying them. However, in the late 1990s fear of GM products spread quickly throughout Europe, and by 1999 the European Council of Ministers was forced to institute a de facto moratorium on approvals of new GM products. The most recent Eurobarometer survey of public opinion found that two-thirds of Europeans would not buy GM fruits even if they tasted better than other varieties.

A 1999 Gallup poll found that while Europeans were campaigning vigorously against GM foods, half of Americans reported that they had heard little or nothing about the subject, and the majority were favorably disposed toward food biotechnology. However, 16 percent were strongly opposed. Awareness of GM foods has certainly grown since then, but there are still no signs of mass opposition. Nevertheless, the small group of committed opponents could be very influential if something happened to undermine public faith in food safety. In Europe it seems that minority opposition became a mass movement when the outbreak of mad cow disease and the badly handled government response shattered public faith in government’s management of food safety. It didn’t matter that mad cow disease had nothing to do with biotechnology. General anxiety about food safety and lack of faith in government protections became expressed as opposition to GM foods. The 1999 Gallup poll found that three-fourths of Americans are at least fairly confident that the Food and Drug Administration can ensure the safety of the food supply, and only 5 percent have no confidence. Still, the European experience demonstrates how quickly public faith can be lost, and a similar scenario is not out of the question in the United States. If it occurs, it will dramatically affect the development of U.S. agricultural biotechnology. In the meantime, the absence of a European market for GM foods is certain to discourage U.S. development of GM products.

Thus far, European opposition to agricultural biotechnology has not spread to medical biotechnology, but European industry is aware that it could. Paul Drayson, chairman of BioIndustry Britain, an industry association, has warned company leaders that they need to launch an ambitious public education program about the benefits of biotechnology or risk seeing medical biotechnology run into the same wall that has hampered progress in agriculture. Americans also seem quite willing to accept biotech medicines. The most often cited reason for the appeal of biotech medicine is that the benefit to consumers is usually obvious, and consumers are willing to accept a little risk in return for a clear benefit. The trouble with GM food is that consumers do not perceive any obvious benefit to themselves. They are not willing to accept much risk in return for foods with

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement