Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology

Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
Melbourne based market research firm, Yann Campbell Hoare Wheeler (YCHW) was
commissioned by Biotechnology Australia in July to conduct a national survey of public
awareness levels of and attitudes towards biotechnology and its applications. The
objective of the research was firstly, to inform the development of Biotechnology
Australia's public awareness and information program on biotechnology and secondly, to
establish a benchmark level against which awareness raising activities can be measured
and evaluated.
The study included two separate strands of research. The first was a quantitative national
survey by telephone of three groups- the general public (1203 respondents), teachers
[predominantly science teachers] (304) and farmers (201). The second phase of the
study involved a series of focus groups in Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Mildura and
Toowoomba involving around 110 participants. Eight focus groups were conducted with
consumers, four with farmers and two with special interest groups (scientists and animal
welfare organisations).
Methodology - telephone survey
General Public Survey
The objective of this part of the study was to gauge the level of awareness for
biotechnology including an understanding of the term biotechnology and related
concepts, awareness of biotechnological applications and regulatory bodies of the general
The general public results were weighted to the Australian population estimates as
provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics for age within sex and the date left
school. To ensure a cross section of people were interviewed, householders were asked
to connect the interviewer to the person in the household who last had a birthday.
Teachers and Farmers Surveys
The objectives of these studies were to gauge the level of awareness for biotechnology
including an understanding of the term biotechnology and related concepts, awareness of
biotechnological applications and regulatory bodies. The study also aimed to determine
the level of acceptance teachers and farmers had for the technology and products
created from, or partly modified by, the procedures available through modern
Overview of Findings
Interest and Awareness in Biotechnology
The majority of people (78%) expressed interest in science and technology (8%
extremely interested, 22% very interested and 48% interested).
Teachers showed considerably more interest in science and technology (33%
extremely interested) than either farmers (13% extremely interested) or the
general public (8% extremely interested).
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
Just over one quarter of Australians had not heard of biotechnology (26%). Those
people aware of biotechnology considered it would improve our way of life over the next
20 years (56%) rather than make things worse (6%). Few people had not heard of
genetic engineering (8%). While 42% of Australians considered that genetic
engineering would make our lives better over the next 20 years, over one third of
Australians (34%) considered that genetic engineering would make our lives worse.
Teachers felt better able to explain the principles of genetic engineering to a friend
(84%) than biotechnology (68%). The general public, while rating their
understanding of genetic engineering above biotechnology, showed a much lower
rate of understanding than teachers (41% for genetic engineering and 16% for
Less than one third (31%) of teachers surveyed considered that biotechnology
would have a positive impact on the future. Conversely, teachers were much more
likely to see positive outcomes arising from genetic engineering than the general
public (69% and 42% respectively).
Teachers associated biotechnology with "genetic engineering" (27%), "other
agricultural issues" (25%) and "health issues/medical cures". Farmers associated
biotechnology with "other agricultural applications" (31%) and "genetic
engineering" (22%).
Teachers associated genetic engineering with "modified food-general" (43%),
"modifying genes/changing cells" (30%) and "improving human health/curing
diseases" (21%). Farmers related genetic engineering to "modified food - general"
(20%), "genetically modified fruit, vegetables and plants" (18%) and "animal
research" (16%).
Perception of future impact of Biotechnology, of respondents aware of
Awareness and Attitudes to the Applications of
More than half the population were aware of the following applications of biotechnology:
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
Inserting genes from one plant species into another to make it more pest resistant
(83% aware).
Developing genetically modified animals for medical studies, such as a mouse that
has genes that cause it to grow cancer (83% aware).
Almost three quarters of respondents (73%) agreed that this was a useful
application for society. Almost two thirds (63%) of people considered this
application to have some risks. Overall, 64% of people considered that this
application was acceptable and 59% of people considered that it should be
There was a high level of agreement that this was a useful application for
society (82%). Fifty percent of Australians felt this application attracted some
risk, however 60% considered the application to be acceptable. Sixty-five
percent of Australians considered that this application should be encouraged.
Introducing human genes into animals to enable them to grow organs for
transplant, such as pigs for human hearts (81% aware).
Seven in ten Australians (70%) considered this to be a useful application for
society, but only 55% agreed that it was morally acceptable. Two thirds
considered this to be a risky application (67%) but 60% agreed that it was
worthy of encouragement.
Using Biotechnology in the production of food and drink, for example, to make
them higher in protein, last longer or taste better
Using biotechnology in the production of food and drinks, for example to make
them higher in protein, last longer or taste better (77% aware).
Two thirds of respondents (66%) agreed that this was a useful application for
society. Similarly, 67% of people considered this application to have some
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
risks. Overall, 61% of people considered that this application was acceptable
and 58% of people considered that it should be encouraged.
Using genetic tests to determine if human embryos have a genetic predisposition
for serious disease (70% aware).
Agreement was high for this application being useful (87%), acceptable
(68%) and something that should be encouraged (74%). Still, over half the
population acknowledge some risks (57%).
Public perception of the usefulness of Biotechnology applications
Less than half the population were aware of:
Introducing human genes into bacteria to produce medicines and vaccines (46%
This application received very high scores for usefulness (84%) and was
considered to be worthy of encouragement (74%). Approximately two thirds
of Australians also considered it to be a risky (63%) but acceptable
application (68%).
Less than half the people interviewed were aware of the following general methods of
genetic engineering:
Modifying the genetic material in plant cells using animal genetic material (24%
The acceptability of this application was low (51%) and more people
considered it to have potential risks (68%) than benefits (56%).
Modifying genetic material in animal cells using plant genetic material (25%
This application was viewed similarly to that outlined above (modifying the
genetic material in plant cells using animal genetic material) with low
acceptability (52%) and more people acknowledging risks (68%) than
benefits (55%).
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
Modifying genetic material of microbes (33% aware).
This application was seen by 71% of people as having risks and only 57% of
people saw it as having benefits. It was acceptable to 56% of respondents.
More than three in five people were aware of:
Modifying genetic material in human cells (61% aware).
Modifying genetic material of animal cells (69% aware).
This application received the highest rating for potential risks (76%) though it
was also rated quite highly for its potential benefits (65%). Just 51% of
people considered this application acceptable.
Fifty-two percent of people considered this application acceptable. Threequarters of respondents (75%) considered this application to have risks and
64% saw it as having benefits.
Modifying genetic material of plants (80% aware).
Modifying the genetic material of plants had the highest acceptability (68%)
and perceived benefits for Australia (75%) and received the lowest rating for
risks or hazards (66%).
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
Public perception of developments in Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering
Use of Genetically Modified Products
The use of genetically modified products varied considerably based on the nature of
the product. The majority of the people would wear clothes made from genetically
modified fibre (81%), use genetically modified medicines (64%), eat oil/margarine made
by genetic engineering so that it was healthier (57%) or buy genetically modified fruits or
vegetables if they tasted better (51%). People were less likely to eat genetically modified
meat (38%) or buy genetically modified fruits and vegetables that lasted longer (44%).
Attitudes to Regulation
Most respondents disagreed that it was not worthwhile labelling genetically modified
foods (general population 89%, teachers 87%, farmers 79%) or consulting with the
public (general population 72%, teachers 87%, farmers 66%). There was strong feeling
that the regulation of biotechnology should not be left mainly to industry (general public
70%, teachers 94%, farmers 62%) and most respondents disagreed that the current
regulations are sufficient to protect people from the risks of biotechnology (general public
58%, teachers 75%, farmers 60%).
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
"Regulation of Biotechnology should be left mainly to industry"
Disagreement that religious groups should have their say in how modern biotechnology is
regulated was highest for the general public (50%, compared to 46% for farmers and
28% for teachers). Similarly, 50% of the general public indicated that they would not buy
genetically modified fruit even if it tasted better (compared to 34% of teachers). There
was a degree of disagreement with the notion that biotechnology is too complex for
public consultation (teachers 56%, general public 54%, farmers 43%). A relatively large
portion of each group disagreed that some level of risk must be accepted from
biotechnology (54% general public, 52% teachers, 54% farmers).
Teachers were less likely to see scientists as uncontrolled by the regulatory environment
than either the general public or farmers (28%, 55% and 61% respectively). Similarly,
teachers were the least likely group to consider that only traditional breeding methods
should be employed (21% compared to 53% of the general public and 44% of farmers)
or that traditional methods could be as effective as biotechnology (36% compared to
51% of the general public and 54% of farmers).
Awareness of Regulators
All groups had the highest level of unaided awareness for the Office of the Gene
Technology Regulator (teachers 10%; general public 7%; farmers 3%). Aided
awareness figures show a different trend with the Office of the Gene Technology
Regulator having the lowest aided awareness figures of any of the regulators (teachers
12%; general public 10%; farmers 16%). The Australian Quarantine and Inspection
Service had the highest level of aided awareness (teachers 97%; general public 91%;
farmers 96%) while the Australian and New Zealand Food Authority also showed a strong
improvement over unaided awareness (teachers 38%; general public 36%; farmers
CSIRO was the most trusted organisation to provide information about biotechnology.
Teachers and farmers had significantly more trust in the CSIRO than the general public
(60%, 57% and 30% respectively).
Sources of Information
The television and newspapers were both very popular as general sources of information
(79% and 76% respectively). Radio and the Internet were also well used sources (31%
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
and 18% respectively). In relation to sources of information about biotechnology,
the Internet was the most preferred option being mentioned by 38% of respondents.
Libraries were the next most popular source (31%) followed by newspapers (14%).
Television was mentioned by just 10% of respondents and radio by only 3%.
For general sources of information to keep up to date, teachers used science and
academic magazines (84%) and farmers were most likely to refer to newspapers
(66%). For information specifically on biotechnology, the general public, teachers
and farmers were all likely to refer to the Internet (36%, 69% and 24%
People reported that they would have most confidence in the CSIRO to tell them the
truth about biotechnology (30%). The other most trusted groups were scientists (14%),
schools/universities (11%) and consumer organisations (11%).
Findings of Focus Group Research
Participants in this study identified a need for:
more information and education on gene technology, particularly in applications
involving food;
food product labelling to identify genetically modified components, the proportion of
the entire product modified and the type of modification involved; and
government controlled regulation and testing.
A re-occurring theme was the issue of "Why do they [industry] want to do this anyway?"
Participants struggled to separate genetic modification from pesticides, chemical
treatment of produce and health scares (for example, contaminated water). To the
consumer, the issue was food safety. Indeed genetic modification of food was
consistently perceived as an extension of the problems which have resulted from
pesticides through further produce "tampering".
The current results suggest that public concern over food safety has remained high from
studies conducted two years ago. Distrust of biotechnology in the current survey was
largely confined to genetically modified foods, with respondents directing their hostility
towards private industry, and to a lesser extent the government, rather than towards the
scientific community. Radical manipulations, such as genetic manipulations crossing
animal and plant boundaries were considered to be "unnatural", "unnecessary" and an
"interference with nature".
The study also found strong support for biotechnology and genetic engineering in other
areas than consumable goods. Medical applications were seen very positively. As one
participant noted "They're already sick, aren't they?" This highlights the risk-benefit
approach that characterised participant reasoning. In relation to items consumed
everyday, such as food, the perceived benefits were often less than the perceived risks.
Earlier studies hypothesized that information, education and the passage of time would
increase the acceptance of gene technology and its applications to the food industry.
However, the perception in 1999 was that while many people accepted genetic
manipulation of food as a fact, they were distrustful of both government and industry
initiatives in this area and would stop the use of technology if they thought it was
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
possible. Again, the fundamental issue was the lack of information and education
compounded by sensationalist media coverage. However, many people considered that
they would be more accepting of genetically modified foods if they "discovered" they had
been consuming them for a long period of time.
The recent media attention on biotechnology was described on the whole as lacking
substance and depth. Issues covered in the media had included the labelling of
genetically modified food, cloning and dispersion of genetically modified seeds to
neighboring crops. Some concern was generated for consumers due to the perceived
scientific disagreement about the safety of genetically modified foods. A public education
campaign was recommended by all groups which would present both sides of the debate
with equivalent strength. The campaign was required to provide the clarity which had
been missing from the media reports.
Many participants were resigned to the belief that genetically modified products were
pervasive throughout the marketplace and had been for a number of years and
expressed annoyance at the lack of labelling or openness on this issue. This anger was
compounded by the fact that currently consumers were unable to choose not to purchase
a genetically modified product due to the lack of labelling.
Concern about the risks of biotechnology was focused almost exclusively on genetically
modified foods. A general suspicion of genetic modification arose from a perceived lack of
testing and the belief that modified products had been prematurely released into the
marketplace. There was a distrust of testing and "scientific advances" following the
consequences of Thalidomide and cigarette smoking.
The real concern for a number of participants was the potential for genetically altered
foods to alter their own DNA structure or result in serious illness due to a virus or
unanticipated side-effect. A number of participants particularly focused upon the ability
to transmit deformities to children. Thalidomide was constantly referred to as an example
of "science gone mad" and having multigenerational effects.
Most participants were suspicious of biotechnology and genetic engineering. The main
motivation for this technology was seen as increasing the profits of multinational
corporations. A few participants noted the social and health benefits that could arise from
biotechnology, such as a reduced use of pesticides and chemicals and the production of
food to assist third world countries. Cynicism, however, was more prevalent than the
perceived benefits with most participants considering that private enterprise directs the
development of these applications and is only driven by financial returns.
The major objection most groups had to genetic engineering was the cross-breeding of
different species. This type of modification was seen as taking several leaps away from
natural processes. It was these changes which participants felt had the greatest
associated risk with regard to disease and other unknown outcomes.
Issues regarding the effect on the food chain were raised with many participants
concerned that biotechnology could result in an irreversible effect on the balance of
nature. In addition, it was perceived that once genetic modification becomes acceptable
with respect to food, the ethical boundaries will continue to be stretched culminating in
"... the genetic modification of people."
Labelling of genetically modified foods was considered to be essential by most
Public Attitudes Towards Biotechnology
While some participants expressed concern that labelling would "scare" consumers, most
participants felt information about the type of modification, the reason for the
modification and proportion of the product modified should be specified on a label. It was
felt that a simple code may need to be placed on the labels for practical reasons with
more information available from an in-store poster, booklet, 13-information number or
Web site.
Regulation of genetic modification was considered to be either lacking or non-existent.
Only one participant expressed an awareness of ANZFA. The CSIRO was occasionally
mentioned as a regulator. Regulation of labelling was considered important by all
consumers with an independent and possibly non-profit organisation associated with the
labelling process.
The vast majority of participants considered regulation should be through a government
body or government appointed panel. Self-regulation was poorly received by consumers
and the animal welfare groups, though favoured by scientists. It was generally
considered essential that the regulator be seen as separate from industry and have
enforcement powers. Many people also thought the regulator should be separate from
government. Ultimately, respondents wanted an identifiable person or group who would
take responsibility in the event of a problem.
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