European and U.S. attitude differences towards GM foods explained in the 16 July 1999 issue of Science

July 16, 1999

This news release is also available in French.


Washington, DC - Differences in media coverage, science literacy, and the public's trust in regulatory authorities can help explain why genetically modified foods have met rancorous public resistance in Europe but hardly a raised eyebrow in the U.S., according to a survey by a team of U.K. researchers. The team analyzes their results in a paper that is part of Science's 16 July special issue about plants and biotechnology.

The forces that shape public opinion towards food biotechnology have been the subject of much speculation lately. But this study, by George Gaskell, of the London School of Economics, and his colleagues, from the same institution and The Science Museum in London, is one of the first to draw some conclusions using empirical data. The survey itself was conducted in 1996 and 1997, and it investigated European and U.S. attitudes towards a variety of applications for genetic engineering. Now, in their Science paper, Gaskell and his colleagues have focused for the first time on a U.S./European comparison of the portion of their survey concerning GM foods and added an analysis of press coverage and policy formation from 1984 to 1996.

Blame it on the Press?
Media coverage does seem to drive the public's responses to new technologies, Gaskell and his colleagues conclude-but not in the way that one might expect. Between 1984 and 1996, European newspapers had a greater increase in the number of stories about agricultural and food biotechnology than the U.S.' Washington Post did, the researchers found. Surprisingly, European coverage generally was more positive than the Washington Post's--even while the European public's aversion towards GM foods was growing. Thus, it seems more likely that Europeans were responding suspiciously to the increased quantity of headlines about a controversial topic rather than being swayed by the content of the stories themselves.

Fears of "Frankenfoods"
Gaskell and his colleagues' survey also provide some much-needed empirical evidence about the role of science literacy in the public's reaction to GM foods. Their results showed that, at the general or "textbook" level, Europeans were more scientifically literate than their counterparts in the U.S. This evidence challenges the general assumption that science literacy generates public support for science and technology. However, the researchers also tested participants specifically on what they imagined this new and unfamiliar technology to be. Europeans proved to be more prone than Americans to perceiving GM foods as menacing or dangerous based on scientifically inaccurate assumptions.

A Matter of Trust
One reason for this suspicion may be that Europeans are still feeling edgy about earlier food safety scares such as the outbreak of BSE, or "mad cow disease." Their survey shows that, in the U.S., (where the public debate over regulating biotechnology was relatively inclusive and settled about a decade ago), the national regulatory agencies enjoyed the confidence of most of the survey's participants. In Europe, trust levels were much lower, and participants were divided as to whether they thought international organizations, scientific committees, or advocacy groups would be more likely to give them accurate information about genetically modified crops.

In general, the researchers point out, Europe's recent history has made its citizens more sensitive than Americans are to potential dangers caused by poorly regulated industrial farming practices. This attitude, they suggest, is intensified by the popular view in Europe that farmland is an important environmental resource to be enjoyed by people from cities and countryside alike. In contrast, most Americans do not considered farms to be typical vacation spots.

The researchers have also found that the European public seems to be approaching the food biotechnology debate from a different angle than experts usually approach issues involving new technologies. That is, popular arguments against GM foods don't use the typical, pragmatic logic of risks and benefits. Instead, some of the European public objects to food biotechnology on moral and ethical grounds, essentially expressing the concern that the technology is a challenge to the natural order. "Biotechnology may be a unique amongst technologies because it deals with the basic 'stuff of life,' it touches upon issues of human dignity and as such goes beyond mere risks and benefits," Gaskell said.

In hindsight, it's now clear that the survey results were an "early warning siren" that anticipated the controversy flaring in Europe today, according Gaskell. As for the future, he says, "The lesson for science, industry and governments is: ignore public opinion at peril."

Science's special issue about plants and biotechnology also includes four additional articles. Two articles discuss progress in engineering more nutritious crops. One of these focuses on recent progress in modifying "macronutrients" (oils, proteins, and carbohydrates) in crops such as corn and soybeans. The other looks at efforts to produce crops with more vitamins and minerals, given that most of the world's staple foods do not provide enough of these "micronutrients" to meet the standards for a healthy diet. A third article reviews how the recent completion of several genome sequences has offered scientists insights they can apply to understanding the genetic mechanisms that control plant growth and development. And a fourth discusses the need for sustainable biotechnology that benefits developing countries. Finally, the issue also includes a special news report about efforts to genetically modify crops grown in specific areas or regions of the world, and an editorial that encourages scientists to become active in easing the public's fears about GM foods.
-end-
ORDER ARTICLE #9: "Worlds Apart? The Reception of Genetically Modified Foods in Europe and the United States," by G. Gaskell, M. W. Bauer, and N. C. Allum, at London School of Economics, in London, U.K.; and J. Durant at The Science Museum, in London, U.K. CONTACT: George Gaskell, at 44-171-955-7702 (phone), 44-171-955-7005 (fax), or G.Gaskell@lse.ac.uk (email).

ORDER ARTICLE #6: "Gene Discovery and Product Development for Grain Quality Traits," by B. Mazur, E. Krebbers, and S. Tingey, at DuPont Agricultural Products Experimental Station, in Wilmington, DE. CONTACT: Barbara Mazur, at 302-695-3700 (phone), 302-695-7361 (fax), or barbara.j.mazur@usa.dupont.com (email).

ORDER ARTICLE #7: "Nutritional Genomics: Manipulating Plant Micronutrient Content to Improve Human Health," by D. DellaPenna at U. of Nevada in Reno, NV. CONTACT: Dean DellaPenna, at 702-784-1918 (phone), 702-784-1650 (fax), or della_d@med.unr.edu (email).

ORDER ARTICLE #8: "Plant Functional Genomics," by C. Somerville and S. Somerville, at Carnegie Institution of Washington, in Stanford, CA. CONTACT: Christopher Somerville, at 650-325-1521 (phone), 650-325-6857 (fax), or crs@andrew2.stanford.edu (email).

ORDER ARTICLE #11: "Biotechnology and Food Security in the 21st Century," by I. Serageldin, at the World Bank, in Washington, DC. CONTACT: Ismail Serageldin, at 202-473-8961 (phone), 202-473-8110 (fax), or GIAR@cgnet.com (email).

ORDER ARTICLE #24: Special News Package, by the Science news staff, in Washington, DC. CONTACT: the AAAS News & Information Office, at 202-326-6440 (phone), 202-789-0455 (fax), or scipak@aaas.org (email).

ORDER ARTICLE #1: "Facing Fear of Biotechnology," by Roger N. Beachy, President of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO. CONTACT: CONTACT: the AAAS News & Information Office, at 202-326-6440 (phone), 202-789-0455 (fax), or scipak@aaas.org (email). For copies of these articles please email scipak@aaas.org (email) call 202-326-6440, or fax the below form to 202-789-0455. For cover art, contact Heather Singmaster at 202-326-6414 or hsingmas@aaas.org.

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