PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO
THE COMMERCIALISATION OF
A REPORT ON DESK RESEARCH
1. INTRODUCTION 2
2. SUMMARY OF FINDINGS 3
3. DETAILED FINDINGS 5
3.1 LEVELS OF PUBLIC AWARENESS AND UNDERSTANDING OF
3.1.1 The growth in public awareness of GM food/crops 5
3.1.2 Levels of understanding of GM food/crops: sources of info 6
3.1.3 Public requirement for information on GM: attitudes to sources 6
3.2 PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO GM FOOD AND GM CROPS
3.2.1 Background: general attitudes to science and to biotechnology 8
3.2.2 General attitudes to GM food and crops 9
3.2.3 Concerns about GM food/crops: rationale 11
3.2.4 Concerns about GM food/crops: safety and risk 13
3.2.5 Concerns about GM food/crops: ethics 16
3.3 PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO THE REGULATION OF GM FOOD/CROPS
3.3.1 The need for regulation: views of the current regulatory situation 17
3.3.2 Public requirements for the regulation of GMOs 18
3.4 IMPLICATIONS FOR GOVERNMENT POLICY AND FOR
FURTHER PUBLIC CONSULTATION
3.4.1 The implications of public attitudes to GM food/crops
for government policy 20
3.4.2 Implications for further public discussion of GM food/crops 21
Appendix: Sources used for the report
PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO THE COMMERCIALISATION
OF GM CROPS
John Kelly December 2002
This report is written for the GM Public Debate Steering Board as a summary of public feelings to date
about GM food and GM crops, and about the possibility of the commercialisation of GM crops within
the UK at some point in the future.
The report draws on a number of documents listed in the Appendix to this report, the bulk of which
were recommended for inclusion by various members of the Steering Board or by COI
Communications. These sources are either direct accounts of a variety of projects of public attitude
research or public consultation related to GM food/crops or form reflections upon them or upon the
history of public reactions to GM food/crops, mainly over the last decade. Attitudes to GM food are
intertwined with attitudes to the commercialisation of GM crops, the great bulk of which are intended
for the production of GM food. For this reason, and also because there are relatively few sources of
information on public attitudes specific to the commercialisation of GM crops, the two subjects are
largely treated as one in this report.
The report focuses principally upon the UK but also, where relevant, draws upon materials related to
research and consultation carried out in other countries, mainly within the European Union.
2 SUMMARY OF FINDINGS
2.1 The issues of GM crops and GM food are largely intertwined as most GM crops
currently serve to produce GM foods. The two topics are therefore mainly treated as
2.2 Awareness of GM food/crops is now general in the UK and the rest of Europe, having
grown steadily over a decade. Main influences upon levels of awareness have been
the media and the activities of NGOs, often in response to a small number of
incidents such as protests over GM food in supermarkets, the development of animal
cloning, and the role of government and science in the BSE crisis.
2.3 Levels of technical understanding of food biotechnology and the degree to which it is
employed in Europe tend to be low. Consumers tend neither to seek out information
on GM food/crops nor to trust conventional sources of information, unless these are
independent of both government and the GM industry.
2.4 Against a background of relatively positive attitudes to science and also to many
non-food applications of biotechnology, attitudes to GM food/crops have been largely
negative over the last decade. Attitudes are also characterised by ambivalence and
uncertainty, largely due to low levels of information and a sense of distrust in the
relevant institutions. However future prevalence of GM foods can seem inevitable.
2.5 Consumers in general see few benefits for themselves from GM food/crops at this
time and tend to perceive the GM industry as the prime beneficiary. Increased
knowledge tends to decrease expectations of benefit. There is an awareness of
purported benefits for food and for the developing world, and the minority who view
GM positively do so through faith in one or more of these industry claims.
2.6 In general, GM food/crops are viewed as a further step towards the ongoing
'industrialisation' of food, a subject about which people tend to have a sense of
unease, often linked to the daily experience of reductions in quality and food value in
line with increases in variety and availability. Resistance to GMOs is often based upon
a view of the 'sort of world' to which these sorts of developments are leading.
2.7 GM foods are seen as risky, less because people understand the technology in any
depth, but more because of a fear of possible long-term consequences to health and
to the environment of a powerful new technology. These fears are influenced by a
sense of GM technology as 'unnatural' and by parallels drawn with recent food
'scares' - most notably the BSE crisis - in which 'natural' boundaries were seen to
have been ignored and regulators to have proved untrustworthy and less than
2.8 In a 2002 survey, 58% of the population declared themselves against GM crop
commercialisation at this time - versus 32% in favour.
2.9 The view of GM technology as essentially 'unethical' is drawn from a sense of
unnaturalness, of 'tampering with nature' and sometimes from concern for animal
welfare. The use of human genes is most strongly questioned and gene transfers
between plants the least, though this last may appear as 'the thin end of the wedge'
2.10 GM technology is seen to require stringent regulation and there is a sense of a
regulatory 'vacuum'. Trust in regulators has diminished significantly over time, often
linked to critical views of the role of government, scientists and industry in 'parallel'
events such as the BSE crisis.
2.11 Nevertheless, people look to government at least to inspire, co-ordinate and control
the process of regulation, which should involve also stakeholders, NGOs and
-crucially - the public. Trust in institutions emerges as an essential pre-condition for
any growth in public confidence in GM foods/crops. Adequate labelling is seen as a
crucial but limited element of regulation.
2.12 The analysis of public attitudes to GM foods and to GM crop commercialisation
implies that the main task for government at this point is to address consumers' real
concerns about the technology, a process which is not accessible through the purely
science-based assessment of risk conventionally employed. The analysis also
indicates the value of - and political need for - public participation in decision-making
around GM issues, and the value of a variety of methodologies for achieving this,
including standard consumer research techniques.
3. DETAILED FINDINGS
3.1 LEVELS OF PUBLIC AWARENESS AND UNDERSTANDING OF GM FOOD/CROPS
3.1.1 The growth in public awareness of GM food/crops
The most recent available research results (May 2002) 32 indicate that awareness of GM foods is now
general within the UK, having grown strongly throughout the nineties. A succession of Consumers
Association surveys carried out from 1994 to 1999 suggested that awareness of GM foods grew
strongly in those years, peaking at around 90%. This sense of a general growth in awareness of GM
during this period - more markedly in terms of food than of crops - is confirmed by several sources,
both within the UK and elsewhere and is seen to be causally linked to a small number of events which
gained prominent media attention.
After two decades in which the science of biotechnology developed without gaining much public
attention, it achieved world-wide prominence in 1997 with the birth of a cloned sheep, an event
which triggered high levels of concern and condemnation from prominent individuals such as the
Pope and the US President. GM foods had been given a tentative introduction onto the UK market in
the mid-nineties in the forms of 'vegetarian' cheese and GM tomato paste, and 1996 saw the first
shipments to Europe from the United States of Monsanto soya and Ciba Geigy maize. A further event,
seen in retrospect to have had a catalytic influence upon perceptions of modern trends in food
production, was the recognition in 1996 of the link between BSE in cattle and Variant CJD in humans
- resulting in the collapse of the market for British beef.
The 'GM Debate' began from this point and the years 1997-99 saw notable growth in critical media
coverage of the influence of biotechnology on food - in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. NGOs
became active in drawing attention to GM and from the time of the UK parliamentary debate on GM
food in January 1999, newspapers tended to be more campaigning in their approach. Around this
time, the main UK supermarkets were persuaded to remove all GM products from their shelves.
Numerous consumer and other campaigning groups joined in the national 'debate', along with a
variety of public figures, including Prince Charles who called for a public debate on GM crops - which
also became the focus of attention through media reports of activist protests against field trials. A
Scottish scientist, Pustzai, linked GM potatoes to cancer in rats in a high profile TV presentation, using
results which have yet to be confirmed but which were supported in a letter to the Guardian by 20
international scientists in early 199915.
The turn of the century saw the high levels of awareness of GM which persist until the present and
also a relative decline in faith in biotechnology, at least in relation to food. Research 32 indicates a
fairly high level of confusion about the extent of any GM content or influence in food but levels of
concern appear to have declined overall, in line with a reduction in media attention to the topic.
3.1.2 Levels of understanding of GM food/crops: sources of information
Consumers generally lack any solid technical basis of understanding of biotechnology and GM related
to food, a factor which seems to indicate that whatever attempts have been made to provide
information on the topic have been largely inadequate. Respondents in research carried out across
Western Europe21 consistently apologised for their lack of understanding of GMOs and the difference
between other processes such as grafting, crossing etc., and numerous other research projects up to
the present time confirm the generally low levels of public understanding of the scientific basis of GM.
The term itself 'GM' is widely recognised and its reference understood, though more commonly with
respect to food rather than to crops. Research carried out this year for the Food Standards Agency
demonstrated that the small minority with some understanding of the scientific basis of GM
understood it principally in terms of crops, as a process of altering genetic material to favour certain
In general, the public have little idea of how extensively GM is used in food production or of ways it
can be used in the food chain or the sorts of products which might see GM use at some stage - either
in the UK or elsewhere in the world. Opinions varied widely between a belief that all GM content in
food had been banned in the UK to a sense that its use was now widespread.
Sources of information
The media, particularly the news media and especially TV news, are shown consistently to form the
main and often only source of information about GM for most people, both in the UK and within the
EU in general.
3.1.3 Public requirement for information on GM: attitudes to sources
In general, the public do not actively seek out information on GM nor feel a strong requirement for it
- unless the matter becomes salient, as in the circumstances of research or consultation processes on
the topic, when strong calls for information tend to surface and the introduction of some factual
information tends to create a hunger for more 33.
This apparently low level of curiosity about GM contrasts with the belief that insufficient information is
provided on the subject. In a MORI Poll of 1999, over 70% of the general public were critical of the
low amount of information generally provided on biotechnology, including GM food 3. Researchers who
produced the PABE report32constantly encountered complaints from the public in 5 European
countries about the lack of available information on GM.
Interestingly, that report observes that the sense of a dearth of information on GM was equally
strong in those countries where media coverage of GM had been highest, including high profile
advertising campaigns by Monsanto. - and concluded that the complaint of lack of information implied
a protest about the quality of information provided. This suggestion of, effectively, barriers to the
understanding of GM through inadequate information recurs in different ways in the sources, and is
seen to register a level of distrust in the sources of whatever information is given.
Within the PABE study, the perceived lack of information on GM was seen as linked to a sense of a
lack of control over one's life and to subjection to powerful institutions. Consumers therefore tend to
look for information of a sort that enables them to combat this imbalance.
Attitudes to sources of GM information
The analysis of public attitudes to the sources of information on GM suggests clearly that sources
independent of both government and the GM industry are preferred above all. In general, this tends
to refer principally to consumer and environmental organisations, but within the UK, supermarkets
also featured as likely sources of trustworthy information on GM.
Government, politicians in particular, are widely distrusted as reliable sources of information on GM
issues, a factor which is strongly related in the UK and elsewhere to government performance over
BSE and sometimes also to numerous other food 'scares' of recent history. (The link between
government credibility and BSE etc. is treated in greater depth in section 3.2.4 which deals with
perceptions of risk.) In an assessment of sources for 'unbiased, honest and balanced information
about biological developments and their regulation', MORI report a net score of minus 20 for
government, placing it 15th out of 20 options3. The highest scores were for GPs (reflecting the
inclusion of medical applications of biotechnology within the research framework) and broadly-based
advisory bodies with lay participation. Similar sorts of results were achieved by the Eurobarometer
measuring attitudes within the EU in both 1996 and 1999 15.
The GM industry appears throughout as the least trustworthy source of information on
biotechnology and GM food/crops, mainly because of its acknowledged concern to profit from the
technology. Lack of information on GM from the proponents of the technology, leading effectively to
the 'surreptitious' introduction of (unlabelled) GM foods was seen as deliberate and an indication of
'something to hide'.21
The media are widely acknowledged as the most important source of GM information but they are
strongly criticised throughout Europe, including the UK, for taking an unhelpfully sensationalist and
unbalanced view of the topic. Within the UK, the more 'heavyweight' TV current affairs programmes
were seen as the most trustworthy of media productions, in contrast to the press, seen as
significantly less balanced in approach.
NGOs, most notably Greenpeace, tend to be perceived as 'a moral voice in a sea of self-interest'2 and
to be trusted accordingly. Within the leading countries of Western Europe, NGOs are seen as
important because they ask 'hard questions' and can influence decision-making. They are also
acknowledged to have their own 'agendas' (concerned with maximising attention and attracting
membership) and consumers do not identify with them unconditionally - and do not necessarily have
them as strong reference points in their lives21.
Scientists are viewed variously as potential sources of information on GM and are generally included
only if their independence is 'unquestionable'. University scientists were seen as most likely to offer
this - and in general, government scientists the least likely.
3.2 PUBLIC ATTITUDES S TO GM FOOD AND GM CROPS
3.2.1 Background: general attitudes to science and to biotechnology
Public attitudes to science
Public interest in science appears strong. A 1996 study for OST/Nuffield Foundation found that - on a
basis of self-selecting answers - interest in science was higher than for sport, politics, news - and new
films! There is however a general and widespread concern in Europe about the speed of technological
development and the impact upon ways of life. Europeans in general are not technophobic but rather
tend to be optimistic about technology in general, though not necessarily with respect to the
influence of science on food and, in particular, the Eurobarometer reveals a decline over time in
optimism concerning agricultural applications of biotechnology 15. Science can be perceived as
tending to move food further from a desirable natural state and often to imply 'contamination' of
General attitudes to biotechnology
The early and seminal work on public attitudes to GM food, Uncertain World (1996-97)2 suggests that
people distinguish readily - and are at pains to do so - between different types of GM products,
basing their assessment principally, though not entirely, upon perceptions of the purpose of the
product. On this basis, GM foods, about which many reservations exist, are generally distinguished
from medical applications of biotechnology and other non-food applications, towards which attitudes
tend to be relatively positive. Reservations about GM crops, less strong than those about GM foods,
are largely absent in the consideration of, for example, genetic testing or of crops modified to
produce fuel or plastics1. Information about non-food uses of GM technology could be seen as
reassuring in its indication of the technological versatility of biotechnology and the possibility of
A further key factor in distinguishing between different types of GM products is the nature of the
gene transfer employed. For example, respondents in the quoted study tended to express strong
moral repugnance at transfers across species from animals to plants and a fortiori from humans to
animals or plants - transfers which could be seen to challenge a sense of established moral order.
One study noted that public apprehensions increased whenever genetic engineering involving animals
was mentioned17. Suggestions of the use of human genes in food could provoke moral outrage at the
implied indifference to taboos against 'cannibalism', and brought on rejection of the proffered concept
of food applications of biotechnology as simply an - innocuous - further stage in selective breeding
In overall terms, attitudes to medical applications of biotechnology, at least for genetic testing and
the production of medicine, have tended to be consistently positive, mainly on a basis of perceived
need and because the risks and the benefits of the technology appear to line up fairly well. The
medical sector is seen as relatively well regulated and to have well-established codes and practices
for the provision of information, for product testing and for post-market monitoring. Nevertheless,
medical applications of biotechnology are sometimes seen as acceptable purely for life-threatening
conditions and many would prefer more 'natural' solutions to be employed where this is possible 2.
The cloning of human cells and tissues for medical purposes is perceived as significantly more
acceptable than the cloning of animals for similar purposes, the latter (which refers to the cloning of
an entire animal, rather than simply elements of it) being seen as repugnant in its closeness to the
cloning of human beings and eugenics15
Trends in general attitudes to biotechnology
The 'GM Debate' which occurred in the last four or five years of the 20th century is seen to have
polarised public perceptions of biotechnology somewhat and to have resulted in some swings in
opinion. Optimism about biotechnology as a science generally declined throughout these years. For
most medical applications and other non food-related applications, support has tended to remain
steady, whereas for GM food, and to a lesser extent for GM crops, support has declined fairly
3.2.2 General attitudes to GM food and crops
At a relatively early point in the period under consideration, the prospect of GM food and crops
achieved a cautious acceptance, in at least one major UK forum of public consultation. Since that
point in 1994, throughout Europe, the trajectory of public opinion has fundamentally declined away
from broad acceptance towards a generally more negative view of GM food/crops. Attitudes tend to
be somewhat ambivalent, not necessarily disapproving but at least low in enthusiasm and hedged
around with conditions and questions.
A 2001 conference paper by the US Consumer Union asks whether a societal consensus is in fact
possible on GM food and suggests that the biotech industry have lost the battle, essentially through
lack of attention to public feelings. (The fact that there is an apparent lack of concern in the US itself
is explained by a lack of awareness of the extent to which food in the States is already genetically
In Europe, including the UK, increased levels of awareness and understanding of GM have tended to
work against ready acceptance of the technology and much of the ambivalence characterising overall
attitudes can be explained at least to some extent as a reaction to low levels of knowledge. Those
most 'engaged' with the topic - ie, most aware, interested and informed - appear generally more
supportive of the technology, but this finding is thought less likely to register that acquaintance leads
to acceptance, than that certain values often form a pre-condition for 'engagement'.
Already in 1996 it was observed at a qualitative level that 'most' of those consulted reacted negatively
to new information on GM foods and this negative approach has tended to grow over time. The
results of the Eurobarometer survey between 1996 and 1999 makes it clear that opposition to GM
foods grew over those years - slightly more strongly than for GM crops - and the 2001 survey shows
massive levels of caution throughout the European Union, though varying somewhat in emphasis
between countries. Over 70% 'do not want' GM food and towards 90% prefer not to eat it without
knowing more and/or without scientific proof of safety. Further research in 2002 continues this
general trend, though in the UK at least, concern about GM food appears as less front of mind than a
few years ago and less immediate than some other food-related concerns, such as the extent of the
use of chemicals in food production.
Qualitative research reveals a further aspect of the ambivalence of attitudes to GM foods in that some
who are opposed to them in principle may nevertheless be willing to purchase them. The Uncertain
World report suggests that such apparent inconsistency is in fact natural - that different criteria can
be adopted for decisions made on the same topic as 'citizens' and as 'consumers'. Some who are
uneasy about the concept of GM foods and might express this in a statement of disapproval made on
a questionnaire (acting as 'citizen'), may in fact purchase them if they are cheaper than non-GM
equivalents (a 'consumer' decision). Predicting consumer behaviour with respect to GM foods may
therefore prove problematic.
Overall, GM foods based on plant technology arouse less concern than either meat or fish. Consumers
appear generally more open to the purchase of GM foods if they can perceive a clear benefit for
themselves - or possibly for animals or the environment. Hypothetical consumer benefits could
include, for example, a reduction in chemical content or of food poisoning bacteria or higher levels of
vitamins - or simply price advantages. The benefits to animals implied by 'vegetarian' cheese or to the
environment by a reduction in the use of herbicides could also improve the perceived acceptability of
some GM foods2.
However, research suggests strongly that very many consumers do not currently see any benefits for
themselves and remain doubtful of the value of GM foods for the future. Nevertheless, discussion of
the topic frequently provokes a sense of inevitability - GM foods are already present - "We are
probably eating them already"2 - and seem certain to develop in importance, given the powerful
financial interests which promote them. The Consumers Association survey of May 2002 suggested
that almost two in three are concerned in some degree that they could currently be eating GM
ingredients without knowing32.
Finally, the ambivalence and negativity which dominate public perceptions of GM foods and crops are
overlaid throughout with uncertainty, linked to a lack of insight and understanding. Fear of the
unknown is a key factor in public response as is the fear that an 'alien' technology may be imposed
upon society by powerful forces. These fears tend to express themselves in terms of questions about
food and agricultural applications of technology which are in a sense surrogates for a sense of
uncertainty and impotence. The following sections deal with these questions in detail. In essence they
Why are GM foods/crops necessary?
Who benefits from them?
How safe are they/how well regulated?
How ethical are they?
3.2.3 Concerns about GM food /crops: rationale
The concepts of necessity and benefit are linked in that the rationale for the technology can be
assessed in terms of the level of benefit provided and for whom. Many consumers - 50% in a recent
survey32- assume that biotechnology offers at least some potential benefits for the production of food,
though 36% thought there are none. The most important benefit suggested by those with a positive
view of potential benefits was higher yield (43%), followed by increased shelf life and benefits to
developing countries (both 21%). Other factors mentioned by minorities in this and other surveys
include crops with greater resilience, greater nutritional value, more consistent/better taste and
appearance - and the appearance of new varieties.
Those most in favour of GM foods/crops are generally so because they believe in one or more of
these or other potential benefits. However, as indicated in the previous section, relatively few
perceive benefits for consumers in GM foods/crops at this time. Stakeholders in the form of the
producers of the technology, food manufacturers, farmers, food retailers, the government and
scientists were between them considered to be the principal beneficiaries of the technology by a total
of 78% of the respondents in the quoted survey. 11% saw developing countries as likely to benefit
the most - and only 5% the consumer. Crops on Trial16 notes a series of surveys from 1991 to 1999
which suggest in total that as knowledge of GM food/crops increases, so any sense of consumer
Views of food today
The perceived lack of consumer benefits from GMOs and of proper rationale for the technology is
perhaps best understood against the background of consumer views of food today. Research for the
Food Standards Agency22 indicates that today most people in the UK feel they have access to the
foods they need to have a healthy, balanced diet - if they choose to have one. Only the lowest
income groups tend to feel constrained by price and access. Food is seen to have improved in variety
over 20 years and to be relatively well regulated. When shopping for food, consumers' principal
concerns are around price, time and convenience; safety appears as a prime concern for a small
However, most people are found to have a low-level, possibly unfocused unease about food, related
to safety and linked to intensive farming techniques, chemical residues, additives, processing and
sometimes other factors such as GMOs and the influence of animal feed on meat. High profile food
'scares' such as BSE, Salmonella or Foot and Mouth Disease have fed these concerns which together
form one aspect of a sense of a loss of quality of life around food - which includes the decline in
social and family cooking and eating practices, and of small shops serving 'real' food on a basis of
genuine expertise22. For some the increases in the variety and availability of food do not compensate
for the loss of taste in produce or of freshness due to extended systems of distribution.
GM food is readily perceived as a likely further step towards greater 'industrialisation' of food and
away from a more 'natural' approach to health and safety and to animal welfare, which many would
prefer in place of current trends.
The original UK consensus conference on GM food 1 tended to see plant biotechnology as an attempt
to create a market rather than a response to a need and the sense of GM food as ultimately an
'unnecessary' step pervades much of the research since then. Interestingly, the GM food product with
possibly the highest profile in terms of claimed consumer benefit - 'Golden Rice' (additional vitamin
content) was rejected in public consultations in two countries where rice is the principal staple. In
Japan this was because the indigenous environment and moral and diet culture would be better
preserved by retaining traditional methods of production suited to each region of the country 20. The
farmers of Andhra Pradesh were attracted to the concept of increased food value in rice but rejected
'Golden Rice' as a dubious short-cut to aiding nutrition without addressing the fundamental problem
of regional poverty36.
Benefits for developing countries
The concept of improving the supply of food in developing countries through GM food/crops was
perceived throughout as holding a strong moral weight but equally was viewed with some scepticism.
The 1994 UK National Consensus on Plant Technology laid stress upon the moral appropriateness of
including the Third World within the compass of any valuable developments in food biotechnology.
Seven years later, the Dutch public consultation17 pointed to the need for an international accord to
ensure that developing countries do not miss out. However, at all stages, there has been some
concern that these countries should be totally free to opt in or out of GM technology and that this
new and contentious technology should not be imposed upon countries with philosophies which may
differ from Western ideas.
There has also been considerable anxiety about the uneven power relationship which might result
between suppliers and users, and the Dutch forum in particular questioned the appropriateness of
supplying patented seeds, including those with the 'Terminator' gene to poor countries. These
concluded, similarly to the Indian farmers, that more 'natural' alternative solutions would be more
appropriate for the developing world. The Japanese Consensus Conference also felt that the
development of high value-added agricultural products such as GM crops risked widening the gap
between rich and poor countries.
The credibility of GMO producer statements of concern for the developing world have been called into
question in a number of studies, including the PABE report and the Southern Voices element of the
Dutch public consultation (based on responses from developing countries). Respondents in the former
study note that GM technology has been targeted from its home country the US principally at Europe
where overproduction is a long-term feature of the food market. Southern Voices observes that, at
least for the next five years, the industry emphasis is on herbicide resistant crops, rather than for e.g.
drought or salt-tolerant crops of potentially stronger relevance to the Third World.
The GM industry is widely seen as primarily focused upon profiting financially from investment in
biotechnology and any statements suggestive of humanitarian goals within the Third World tend
therefore to be received with some scepticism 21.
Consumers within Europe are fairly clear therefore that the main beneficiary of GM food and crops is
intended to be the suppliers of the technology. Resistance to GM food in Europe has latterly become
linked to issues of globalisation, in particular the issue of control over EU food markets of US biotech
companies - resulting in demonstrations outside the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in
1999 and the World Bank in Washington in 200015. These events appear as extensions of the GM
debate within Europe, providing additional insights into public attitudes to GMOs from outside the
formal processes of research and consultation. In common with the tactic of boycotting foods with
GM ingredients, as occurred in Europe in the late nineties, they may be seen as a mode of
communication adopted by those who feel otherwise impotent to affect events.
3.2.4 Concerns about GM food/crops: safety and risk
Fear of the unknown forms the key-note of concerns about the potential risks of GM food and crops,
linked to a sense of a powerful technology, the ethics of at least some aspects of which are seen to
be open to question. (See 3.2.4). Safety concerns are general, though more strongly focused upon
gene transfer between species. Much of the sense of uncertainty informing perceptions of food
biotechnology relates to the speed at which it has developed and the question of whether the
time-gap between laboratory and field or plate is sufficient for assured safety. Very many feel that
more time is needed for proper evaluation and concern is often founded upon a recognition that
problems with food technology may take many years to become apparent, as occurred with BSE and
vCJD. In general, concerns about health emerge more readily than those about effects upon the
Interestingly, both those basically in favour of the technology and those who are less so agree upon
the possibility of long-term risks in GM crops/food. The Eurobarometer survey shows that a
substantial majority of those who oppose GM foods believe that it threatens the natural order and
could provoke 'a natural catastrophe' if it went wrong. Supporters of the technology have roughly the
same belief, though in all cases, animal cloning is seen as more risky than food or crops 15. Similar
conclusions were reached in the Uncertain World2 study with respect to GM food and crops as a
whole. Even enthusiastic supporters of the technology acknowledged that GMOs are not so well
understood as to preclude the possibility of unforeseen synergies and other effects from the
widespread commercial diffusion of the technology, leading to potentially dire effects upon human
health, eco-systems and biodiversity. Events comparable to the disasters of Three Mile Island or
Chernobyl seemed possible - anywhere in the world, given the globalisation of trade in GMOs today 2.
Possibly of greatest concern throughout the discussions over time is the sense that the unforeseen
consequences of the technology may prove to be irreversible. For very many, the possibility of
irreversibility of effect disqualified any potential application from consideration 17 Monitoring the
environmental and health effects of GMOs post-release is seen as particularly problematic;
identification of impact was seen as significantly more difficult than with medicines. Interestingly, the
sense of risk from GM foods is seen to correlate on a country basis with the level of trust in the food
chain - and with the extent of food labelling related to GMOs. *
From an early stage in the discussion of GM crops/food in the UK, much stress was placed upon the
problem of uncertainty and the difficulty of predicting the likelihood of damage to health and to the
environment - about which 'experts' appeared to disagree widely1. In this context there was little
support for promised consumer benefits such as increased shelf-life or better appearance or flavour,
which seemed trivial reasons for 'meddling' with foods seen to currently fulfil their function perfectly
well. The Dutch in 2001 rejected, for example, the concept of genetically modified salmon as offering
trivial product benefits for the potential risk to biodiversity.
It seemed likely that unforeseen consequences might occur, for example in tomatoes in which the
visual evidence of a natural process of decay was lost through genetic modification. For some this
disturbed the sense of reality - is a tomato which does not follow a 'natural' path to decay still a
In a survey carried out as part of the 2001 Public Consultation in Holland, 26% of the general
population favoured the further development of genetic engineering in food, against 43% who were
more negative. Qualitative research around this revealed a much higher proportion of respondents
willing in discussion to allow the technology to be explored further, but only on the basis of stringent
guarantees and controls over safety - but at a level which it was acknowledged that science has not
yet attained. In a parallel large-scale survey run by a Dutch newspaper, only 7% felt that the further
diffusion of GM crops should be allowed on a basis of current scientific understanding 17.
In 2002, a UK survey for the Consumers Association found that 32% of the population (and
significantly more men than women) thought that GM crops should be commercialised (58%
disagreed) and of those currently against crop commercialisation 29% thought that they could be
grown at some point in the future. Negative views were underpinned principally by a sense of
uncertainty and of risk. These findings echo an earlier study by MORI for Greenpeace (1999) which
found that virtually 60% of the population were against GM crop testing on farm land, with a slightly
stronger NIMBY vote against field trials being held locally to respondents.
Trust in institutions: BSE
Public fear of unforeseen consequences in the longer term is exacerbated by a sense of official denial
of these possibilities, a factor which is seen as key to the sense of risk surrounding the technology.
With any new technology, uncertainty seems natural, but safety is imperilled if risk is not
acknowledged21. The BSE crisis was probably the most important catalyst of public opinion in this
respect, both in the UK and elsewhere, though in fact a long list of examples within a similar context
of official denial and eventual dire consequences was produced in discussions of GMOs and risk .
Lessons taken by the public from these events are paraphrased below21.
There are irreducible uncertainties around the potential impact of a new product or
technology, a fact which decision-makers tend to deny, acting only when events force
them to acknowledge the possibility of risk;
Regulations to reduce risk may be unrealistic on the ground and their impact may be
modified or destroyed by incompetence, fraud, lack of means etc.;
Important decisions affecting lives are made without explanation by unaccountable, alien
institutions subject only to the ballot box;
The protection of health and the environment is subject to the financial interests of
powerful players, who are able to influence government;
All major agri-food innovations today contribute to the further industrialisation of food.
Risk is therefore perceived crucially in terms of the behaviour of institutions and the sense of risk may
be authentically drawn less from a detailed understanding of specific technical factors than from an
awareness of historic parallels. The complexities of biotechnology do not prevent an assessment of
risk by non-specialists, but rather serve to direct them to mediated information in the form of the
accounts of events with similar characteristics such as BSE , received from trustworthy sources23.
Interestingly, the Department of Health, drawing upon its own experience and research of public
attitudes, established in 2001 a list of 'fright factors' which characterise higher levels of concern about
risk - all of which appear to apply to the current situation with respect to GM. In paraphrase, risks are
perceived as more worrying and less acceptable if they are seen to be:
involuntary, inequitably distributed and inescapable
unfamiliar/novel and man-made rather than natural
causing hidden and irreversible damage, with implications for future generations
poorly understood by science and subject to contradictory statements from responsible
3.2.5 Concerns about GM food/crops: ethics
Ethical concerns about food biotechnology emerged early in the discussion of GM foods, when the UK
Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology1 noted a potential conflict between "those who feel
that biotechnology is morally wrong and the philosophy of the scientific community" and the
Uncertain World report2 observed "moral concerns over our entitlement to restructure the foundations
of life as we know it". Only a small minority seem to view the science as simply 'giving a hand to
nature' - biotechnology in general is widely viewed as essentially 'unnatural' both by those hostile to
its development and a high proportion of those supportive of it 15. The ethical stance is based upon a
sense of pushing nature beyond appropriate limits and 'playing God' by meddling with established
life-forms. The production of novel forms of life can be perceived as upsetting equilibrium in nature
and to be part of a long-term trend towards the sacrifice of natural food benefits - taste, nutritional
value - to considerations of enhanced profit through manipulating nature, essentially to produce
economies of scale21.
As the discussion of general attitudes to biotechnology and GM foods demonstrated (3.2.1/2), people
readily distinguish between different types of product, mainly on a basis of purpose and are more
inclined to take an ethical exception to processes based on the inter-species transfer of genes,
particularly those involving either animals or humans. The sense of moral outrage is at its highest
with respect to human genes passing into food, especially meat, and at its lowest with respect to
transfers between plants. In the latter case, assessment could sometimes closely parallel the
assessment of products emerging from other, more conventional breeding processes such as
crossings carried out within natural species boundaries. However, resistance to all forms of food and
crop biotechnology is often based on a sense of 'the thin end of the wedge' - the possibility that the
science will in time pursue a 'natural' trajectory from plants to animals to humans.
The sense of GM food as essentially unnatural and therefore ethically questionable, varies to a degree
between countries but has been a general feature of public attitudes to food biotechnology
throughout. As a concern it clearly overlaps with the concept of risk - introducing disequilibrium into
nature can be seen as unethical and also risky - but its separate importance has been noted over time
and is observed to have grown against the simpler concern of physical risk. Between the years 1996
and 1999, the increasingly public 'GM debate' and the mobilisation of opposition to GM foods seemed
to expand the importance of the 'Faustian' (ethical) view that 'tampering' with the building blocks of
nature is problematic in se - against the 'Frankensteinian' view focused on the risk of unforeseen
effects15. Ultimately, the ethical critique of GM food and crops is based upon a view of the world that
people have, of what is going wrong and should be changed21.
3.4 PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO THE REGULATION OF GM FOOD/CROPS
3.3.1 The need for regulation: views of current GM regulation
The need for GM regulation
At no point in the years of public discussion of food biotechnology has there been any doubt about
the need for strong regulation of the technology. In 1996, the perceived 'inevitability' of the eventual
diffusion of GM food and crops underlined for many the need to regulate the sector before choice
'disappears'2. Concern for 'honest, open' regulation is extremely high - in the MORI poll of 1999 as
many as 97% of respondents felt that it was important to have rules and regulations in place, mainly
from a sense of the possibility of unknown long-term consequences3. And in the Dutch Public
Consultation of 2001 it was observed that the more people became informed about GM and had the
opportunity to reflect upon it, the more concerned they became about the need for regulation and
the more stringent their demands of regulators17.
Views of current GM regulation
The PABE report21 registers the sense of a regulatory vacuum throughout the leading countries of
Western Europe with respect to GMOs. People were often unclear where responsibility lay and to
what degree institutional arrangements already existed and were able to function successfully. The
food sector itself was perceived as traditionally having relatively low standards of regulation, at least
in comparison to the other key sector for GMOs, the medical sector, and to allow and depend upon a
high level of manipulation of consumers. These factors, taken with the rapid advance of technology
and pressure from the powerful economic interests involved in the promotion of food biotechnology
seemed to create difficult conditions for government regulators, who were possibly non-specialists, to
operate within. In 1996, 53% of Europeans believed that current regulations were inadequate to
protect people from the risks of GM technology16and in 1999 the MORI poll 3suggested that only 38%
of UK consumers felt that adequate regulation of biotechnology existed (In both cases, a high
proportion simply did not know). There is no apparent evidence to suggest that this situation has
improved in the interim.
Numerous sources point to the 'collapse' of trust in government regulation which followed the BSE
crisis, as a mismatch became apparent between the broad nature of public concerns and the
relatively limited approach of governmental regulatory criteria. Concerns about the ethics of scientific
practice and common sense assessments of the possibility of the long-term, possibly irreversible
effects of employing novel technologies or practices which crossed traditional boundaries were seen
not to have been taken into account in the case-by-case 'sound science' approach of governmental
regulation. Collusion between politicians and industry is widely suspected to form one reason for the
inadequacy of regulation.24
The BSE crisis emerged as a "focal point indicating the unresponsiveness of official regulatory
systems, the influence of private interest (and) the misleading character of scientific statements"2 In
fact, the decline of trust in government and in scientists goes beyond food crises and is seen as
ultimately linked to a general growth in emancipation, as people have become better informed and
educated, more independent and better equipped to form their own opinions17.
3.3.2 Public requirements for the regulation of GMOs
Sources of regulation
As commentary so far indicates, the government is seen as the most natural and appropriate source
of the regulation of GMOs, at least in terms of a role as central coordinator of the various interests.
Despite the difficulties inherent in rapidly developing technology and the influence of powerful
economic forces, research suggests at least a 'residual' faith that public institutions are capable of
responding to the current need. Scepticism concerning the recent performance of these institutions
introduces an element of ambivalence to this belief, which to some degree can be seen as a sense of
virtual trust, based on a lack of realistic alternatives 2.
The discussion of who should be involved in the regulation of GMOs reflects very closely the earlier
discussion of preferred sources of information on the topic. Stress is placed upon the involvement of
advisers representing different view points, including both the scientific and -with equal emphasis -
the lay public3. NGOs should also be included and emerge as important proxies for official limitations.
Food processors and retailers were also seen to bear a responsibility for safeguarding customers, but
doubts were expressed as to what degree producer and consumer interests converge 2.
An increase of trust in institutions appeared in the report of the Dutch public consultation 17 as the
crucial pre-condition for any growth of public confidence in GM foods. The public must come to rely
on the four key actors - government, science, trade and industry - to a level which does not currently
exist, with respect to their role in monitoring applications of biotechnology in food. Throughout the
sources, the development of this trust is seen as importantly contingent upon greater public
involvement in the whole process of regulation.
Scope of regulation of GMOs
The nature of the technology is seen to imply a requirement for the regulation of GM foods and crops
on an international basis and procedures should be standard across countries 1.
Essentially, regulation has to take into account the real concerns of the public, especially in terms of
their perceptions of long-term risk and of the ethics of food biotechnology. Regulation should itself
therefore be a long-term process and post-market monitoring - however difficult to achieve - has to
form an intrinsic part of the process. In this respect, doubts are raised over the validity of field trials
as they are currently envisaged - as relatively short-term exercises1.
Ethical concerns in particular require an emphasis upon choice - it is a given of public attitudes to GM
foods that they should not be imposed upon the public. In this context, the requirement for labelling
of GM products forms a central element of the discussion.
Strong calls for full and explicit labelling - standard across countries - have been made consistently
from an early stage. In the latest survey research consulted - Consumers Association, May 2002 -
94% required GM ingredients to be indicated on labels, 87% believing this should be the case even if
genetically modified materials are not detectable in the final product. 58% stated that food products
could be labelled 'GM free' only if there had been no contact whatsoever at any point in the course of
production - indicating a view of GM as process as much as product32.
In fact, the Dutch public consultation elaborated a demand for four categories of labelling - all of
which should be simple, unambiguous and distinguishable:
GM-free in composition and production
GMOs involved in production only
Less than 1% GM product ingredients
More than 1% GM product ingredients17
The Uncertain World report stressed that the sorts of information required on labels on GM foods
would differ significantly from conventional labelling requirements and should contain indications of
which genes were used and why and what non-GM alternatives exist. A simple statement of GM
contents does not allow a judgement on the basis of the sorts of concerns about GM foods which
The same report stresses that labelling, however adequately formulated, is not in itself a sufficient
response to consumer concerns - as labels 'reduce what are inherently general issues to atomised
matters of consumer decision at the point of sale."2
The limitations of labelling as a form of regulation are dramatically illustrated in one research project
which suggests that today 'most' shoppers 'hardly ever' read labels17.
The patenting of specific forms of GM products, specifically seeds, may be viewed as a form of
regulation in itself. Considerable unease is expressed about this feature of food biotechnology, the
appropriateness of the concept of patenting life forms and its implications for farmers and for
developing countries etc. The Japanese Consensus Conference on GM Crops in particular laid stress
upon the impetus given by patenting to the further industrialisation of agriculture and dependence
Current patenting procedures are sometimes seen as risky and inadequate and it was suggested that,
although patenting may be necessary for producers to benefit from their investment in the
development of GM technology, patents should not be too broad in scope1.
3.4 IMPLICATIONS FOR GOVERNMENT POLICY AND FOR FURTHER PUBLIC
3.4.1 The implications of public attitudes to GM food/crops
for government policy
This brief section does not attempt to spell out in any detail the extensive implications for
government of the snap-shot provided of public attitudes to GMOs, but rather points out the basic
nature of these implications, following the main thrust of the analysis given above and some
academic reflections upon the concept of public risk today32.
In the preceding narrative, government is accused of a lack of impartiality - effectively of collusion
with the biotech industry - and of a lack of appreciation of the public perspective on GMOs. The task
for government is therefore to demonstrate both impartiality and understanding. The key to this
seems to be to acknowledge that:
ethical concerns about GM are not totally dependent upon detailed scientific
understanding and that
common-sense - intuitive - approaches to risk are valid and relevant in any
discussion of policy.
The limited approach to the assessment of risk which is employed by the biotech industry and which
tends to characterise government views of GMOs is said to be based more or less entirely upon a
requirement for scientific categorisation, preferably by quantitative means. Public attitudes to GMOs
are, by contrast, a 'qualitative complexity' made up of a mix of the scientific and the intuitive - and
require adequate representation in the regulatory forum if public discontent with developments in GM
foods/crops is to be addressed.
Public viewpoints are culturally-based - they cannot be addressed simply by a science-based
programme of communication aimed at correcting 'misconceptions'. The 'vividness' of the potential
consequences of a GM 'disaster' is such that the level of probability becomes almost an 'academic'
consideration. Ultimately, the nature of the risk implied by GM technology counts for more in the
public mind than any measure of probability and so far there is no vision of rewards adequate to
compensate for this perceived risk. 'Risk' is said to be increasingly recognised - so far in local more
than in central government - as an area where democracy should be extended beyond the ballot box
to the community as a whole37.
There seems to be a clear need for the public re-evaluation of the goals of food biotechnology and for
a dedicated approach to plugging the gaps in current knowledge, much of which is concerned with
the potential long-term dangers of the technology. It is seen as the role of government to encourage
research to this end and to establish impartial agencies (and possibly a specific minister) to oversee
safety and to provide enforcement of regulation - on an international basis.
Other points emerging from the accounts of public attitudes to GMOs of potential interest to
the demonstration that public discussion on GMOs can be enriched by co-opting critical
voices into the government processes of assessment, as occurred in Holland and
the suggestion coming from recent research for the Food Standards Agency that the
basic attitudes to GM foods analysed in this report, although widespread are neither deep
nor established - due to the high level of uncertainty which prevails in all discussion - and
could change, should the matter be brought to prominent public attention 33
3.4.2 Implications for further public discussion of GM food/crops
Issues around public involvement in a national debate on GM crop commercialisation are dealt with in
a parallel document produced for the GM Public Debate Steering Board by the Strategic Consultancy
Unit of COI Communications. Implications of this analysis of public attitudes towards any further
research and consultation in this area may be summarised in bullet-point format:
The public tend to take a rational and balanced approach to the discussion of GM issues
and the 'lay' view offers distinctive and rewarding insights
People today demand and expect to be involved in the process of policy formation around
new technologies with far-reaching implications for society
Public consultation should be linked into the political process - for example, the initial UK
debate, the UK National Consensus on Plant Biotechnology (1994), which successfully
covered much of the ground at that early stage, has been labelled a political 'cul-de-sac'
because of the lack of any such link2
Albeit extensive and - by definition - expensive processes of consultation have made
invaluable contributions to the understanding of public attitudes to GM crops and food, it
is interesting to note the valuable contribution made by the use of less costly standard
consumer techniques. These include deliberative techniques which have successfully
expanded the scope of the discussion by the introduction of new information - with no
apparent prejudice to objectivity.
New research techniques and philosophies relevant to the study of risk are appearing and
should be kept under review. In particular, Multi-Criteria Mapping appears to expand the
potential for understanding complexity and ambivalence in societal reaction to new
technology, but has yet to be fully adapted to the demands of public attitude research 30
Appendix: sources used
1. UK National Consensus Conference on Plant Biotechnology (1994), Science Museum, London
2. Uncertain World: Genetically Modified Organisms, Food and Public Attitudes in Britain, IEPPP,
Lancaster University ((1997)
3. The Public Consultation on Developments in the Biosciences . MORI for Office of Science and
4. The Politics of GM Food: Risk, Science and Public Trust, ESRC Global Environmental Change
Programme, Global Briefing No. 5 (1999)
5. Risk Perception, Social Trust and Public Participation in Strategic Decision Making: Implications for
Emerging Technologies, Lynn Frewer, Ambio Vol 28 No. 6 , (September 1999)
6. Risk at a Turning Point? A. Stirling, Journal of Environmental Medicine, 1, 119-126. (1999)
7. Science and Precaution in the Management of Technological Risk, A. Stirling for EC Forward
Studies Unit (1999)
8. Rethinking Risk: A Pilot Multi-Criteria Mapping of a Genetically Modified Crop in Agricultural
Systems in the UK, A. Stirling, S. Mayer, SPRU 1999
9. Monsanto Monograph PITA Project: Policy Influences on Technology in Agriculture:
Pesticides, Seeds and Biotechnology, Joanna Chataway and Joyce Tait (January 2000)
10 Novartis Agribusiness Monograph - idem
11 Zeneca Agrochemicals Monograph - idem
12 Constructing the Scientific Citizen: Science and Democracy in the Biosciences, Alan Irwin,
Institute of Physics Publishing, Public Understanding of Science (2001) pp1-18
13. NOP survey on public attitudes to GM foods, for Cropgen The Case for Biotechnology (2001)
14 AEBC Development Group on Public Attitudes and Consumer Choice, Seminar for Academics,
National Consumer Council January 2001. Minutes of the session.
15 Biotechnology 1996-2000 - The Years of Controversy. Science Museum, edited by George Gaskell
and Martin W Bauer.(2001)
Crops on Trial Agriculture and Environment Biotechnology Commission (2001)
17 Genes on the Menu, Report on public debate on biotechnology and food in The Netherlands in
18 The Debate over Food Biotechnology: Is a Societal Consensus Achievable? Edward Groth,
Consumers Union of United States Inc. Paper for symposium on Biotechnology Communications:
Fortune or Fiasco? at AGM for American Association for the Advancement of Science (2001).
19 Genetically Modified Crops. Why? Why not? Report on international conference, Stockholm (2001)
20 Report on Consensus Conference on Genetically Modified Crops, Society for Techno-innovation of
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Japan. (2001)
21 Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnology in Europe. Final Report of the PABE research
project, Marris, Wynne, Simmons & Weldon (2001)
22 Policy Commission on Farming and Food in England submission from the Food Standards Agency
23 Social Amplification of Risk, Tom Horlick-Jones for Health & Safety Executive (2001)
24 Open Channels: Public Dialogue in Science and Technology, Parliamentary Office of Science and
25 Evaluating Participatory, Deliberative and Co-operative Ways of Working: The Development of
Evaluation, Interact Evaluation Group (2001)
26 Bioethics, Biotechnology and the Public, edited by Agnes Allansdottir, Politeia, No. 63, (2001)
27 Late Lessons from Early Warnings: The Precautionary Principle 1896-2000, European
Environment Agency (2001)
28 A novel approach to the appraisal of technological risk: a multi-criteria mapping study of a
genetically modified crop, A. Stirling, S. Mayer, Environment & Planning C: Government and
Policy 2001, Vol 19, pp 529-555
29 Risk, Uncertainty and Precaution: some instrumental implications from the Social Sciences, A.
Stirling, for Negotiating Change, forthcoming 2003.
30 Finding a Precautionary Approach to Technological Developments - lessons for the evaluation of
GM Crops, A. Stirling, S. Mayer, Journal of Environmental and Agricultural Ethics, 15, 57-71,
31 Feeding the Debate, Foresight: A report from the Debate Task Force of the Food Chain and Crops
for Industry Panel, (2002)
32 GM Dilemmas - Consumers and Genetically Modified Foods, Consumers' Association, 2002.
33 Public Attitudes to Genetic Modification, COI Communications for Food Standards Agency (2002)
34 Future of Food and Farming, COI Communications, Hedges and Sykes, for Food Standards
35 Seeds of Doubt: Summary of Report on research among US farmers, Soil Association (2002)
36 Prajateerpu: A Citizens' Jury/Scenario Workshop on Food and Farming Futures for Andhra
Pradesh, India. Pimbert and Wakeford (2002)
37 New Democratic Processes, Robin Clark, Institute for Public Policy Research (2002)
38 Public Attitudes and Values, Chapter 2 of 3rd Report of Select Committee on Science and
39 The Social Dynamics of Environmental Risk Perception: Implications for Risk Communication
Research and Practice, Horlick-Jones, Sime and Pidgeon for Social Amplification of Risk and Risk
Communication, CUP (2003)