Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnology: An Overview of Research to Date

Don E. Albrecht

Associate Professor
Department of Rural Sociology
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas 77843

During the past few centuries, rapid developments in science and technology have dramatically altered all aspects of human life. In medicine, antiseptic surgery and the control of disease-causing microorganisms helped ease human suffering and lengthened average lifespan. The use of machines greatly increased the amount that an individual could accomplish, and reduced the physical burden that humans had to carry. In numerous other areas, the effects of science and technology on human society were extensive (Catton 1980).

The consequences of science and technology are perhaps as evident in agriculture as any other human endeavor. Mechanical developments greatly increased the amount of work that an individual could perform, while breakthroughs in genetics, pesticides, and fertilizers have greatly increased per acre production. As a result, in two hundred years we have gone from a nation of subsistence farmers where nearly everyone was involved in agriculture to a nation where, with less than 3 percent of the population living on farms, we are nevertheless able to produce sufficient food and fiber for our nation’s needs and to have considerable surpluses for export abroad (Albrecht and Murdock 1990; Cochrane 1979).

As a consequence of the perceived benefits of science and technology, their glories were widely espoused, efforts to promote further developments were supported, and attempts to diffuse the use of these developments to the general population were encouraged. At one time in our society, it was accepted, almost without question, that scientific breakthroughs and technological developments were progress that would improve the quality of our lives. As a result of science and technology, the present was better than the past, and the future would be even better than the present (Boulding 1978; Dunlap 1980).

Like other segments of our society, there was a time when the benefits of science and technology in agriculture were accepted without question, and the Agricultural Experiment Stations were created to encourage further such developments. In fact, the failure of producers to adopt new technologies was considered an important social problem, and the Cooperative Extension Service was created to help in the process of transferring technology from the laboratory to the farm (Rogers et al. 1988; Fliegel and van Es 1983). A massive literature emerged in rural sociology where the underlying theme was to increase the speed of the diffusion process (Rogers 1983). In recent years, the growth of scientific knowledge has continued, and technological breakthroughs abound. One of the prominent areas of scientific and technological advance is biotechnology. The biotechnology revolution is based on advances in molecular biology that permit the identification, alteration, and transfer of genetic materials that control fundamental characteristics of organisms. Developments in biotechnology are occurring so quickly that work is often outdated even before it is published (Bentley 1987). At the present time, it is estimated that there are over 300 private firms engaged in the development of biotechnology, and billions of dollars have been spent to date on biotechnology research (Klassen 1987).

While developments in biotechnology are expected to impact all areas of human life, the impacts are expected to be especially great in agriculture. Some of the developments include experimentation to improve photosynthesis and crop yield, improvements in the natural pest resistance of plants, and efforts to create nitrogen-fixing abilities that will make plants self sufficient for nitrogen fertilizer. Further developments include crops that are resistant to drought and frost and that can thrive where the soil is saline. Through biotechnology, there are improved means of testing for and treating animal diseases. In the environmental area, there are specialized micro-organisms to degrade dioxins and other pollutants in chemicals. Other microorganisms will devour oil spills and clean kitchen drains (Godown 1987). This list could go on, but the point is that these breakthroughs are impressive, and the potential benefits to society from these breakthroughs are enormous.

However, unlike the previous generation of scientific and technological developments where breakthroughs were accepted almost uncritically, biotechnology was met with a storm of controversy and debate. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to determine public perceptions of biotechnology by examining available research. Attempts will be made to understand some of the reasons for changing attitudes toward science and technology in general, and biotechnology in particular. Finally, since there has been so little social research on biotechnology, an effort will be made to describe the types of research that should be conducted in order to avoid further public perception problems.

Changing Views of Science and Technology

In 1957, a survey by the National Opinion Research Center revealed that over 90 percent of the U.S. public agreed that “On balance, the benefits of scientific research have outweighed the harmful results.” Further, almost 100 percent of the U.S. Public agreed that “Scientific discoveries are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable” (Berrier 1987).

In recent years, significant changes have occurred in the views of the general public toward science and technology. No longer are developments in science and technology accepted uncritically. No longer are science and technology directly equated with progress and an improved life. By 1979, a follow-up study of the National Opinion Research Center found that the proportion agreeing to each of the above statements about the benefits of science and technology had declined significantly. Although still supported by the majority of Americans, the extent to which science and technology were uncritically supported had definitely eroded.

In 1986, another major study of the attitudes of the general public toward science and technology was conducted by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). This study is of interest both because it revealed a continuation of the erosion of faith in science and technology revealed by the 1979 study and because it is the most in-depth study to date of public perception of biotechnology specifically. The OTA study was conducted between October 30 and November 17 of 1986 by Louis Harris and Associates. Surveys were completed with a national probability sample of 1,273 American adults. The study found that 71 percent of the respondents believe that developments in science and technology pose at least some risk to them and their families. When faced with the fundamental choice between the risks and benefits to society from continued scientific and technological development, 62 percent feel that the benefits outweigh the risks. This is down from 90 percent in 1957.

When questioned specifically about biotechnology, a slight majority (52 percent) believes that genetically engineered products are at least somewhat likely to represent a serious danger to people or the environment. With other factors equal, the public is more favorably disposed toward the genetic alteration of plants, animals, and bacteria than manipulating human cells. The reason for this difference appears to be a concern about the moral status of such actions. Despite the concerns expressed by some segments of the population, a majority recommends continued biotechnology research. However, a vast majority — 82 percent — favors the application of genetically altered organisms on a small-scale experimental basis prior to more widespread use. Further, the public strongly supports the strict regulation of biotechnology and its products.

These findings represent a substantial departure from the views of the public in the past toward science and technology. The reasons for these changes in public opinion are no doubt numerous and complex. Perhaps some of the more important reasons include the fact that it has become readily apparent to many that technological developments often have severe negative social consequences. While some individuals benefit, others pay the cost. For example, while mechanical advancements in agriculture led to vastly increased per farm production, these technologies also resulted in rapid increases in the size of the average farm, with a corresponding decline in the number of farms. In 1940 there were over 6 million farms in the United States. However, as a result of major technological breakthroughs, this number had declined to about 2.1 million in 1987 (Albrecht and Murdock 1990). Such reductions in the number of farms resulted in severe economic and demographic declines in agriculturally dependent rural communities. Further, many of the farm people forced to leave agriculture migrated to urban areas without the job skills to compete successfully in that job market. There were also numerous other social consequences (Rodefeld et al. 1978).

A second reason for the reduced public acceptance of science and technology is that the public now has major concerns about the health and safety consequences of science and technology. Part of this concern is a result of major disasters related to modern technology such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Bhopal. In each case, prior to the disaster the public was assured that the technology was safe. Now the public appears less willing to accept the word of either industry or the government about the safety of modern technology.

Finally, the environmental consequences of modern science and technology have come under question in recent years. The ecological problems associated with agricultural pesticides, the leaching of fertilizers into surface and groundwater supplies, and other major air and water pollution problems resulting from recent developments in science and technology have raised serious questions in the minds of the general public. Additional environmental concerns such as ozone depletion and global warming have further raised public concern.

The Public Perception Problems of Biotechnology

In addition to the general public perception problems of science and technology just discussed, biotechnology may have several other specific problems that result in negative reactions among some segments of the general population. One such factor may be that the level of understanding of the general public is extremely limited. For example, a 1985 national poll found that only 16 percent of the general population believed that they had a clear understanding of DNA, while 57 percent felt they had little understanding (Berrier 1987). Keep in mind that members of the general public tend to overestimate their knowledge on public poll questions such as this. In addition, those groups and organizations that are opposed to biotechnology are well -organized and vocal, and may have had a major effect on public perceptions (Rifkin 1987). With industry making little effort to educate members of the general public or to understand their concerns, much of what people believe about biotechnology is based on what the opposition groups tell them. Further, some segments of the population seem to be concerned about the moral implications of gene manipulation. In discussing public perceptions of biotechnology, Klassen (1987) maintains that opposition falls into the following four categories:

  1. There is concern that the release of genetically engineered microorganisms may result in some unintended, yet perhaps permanent damage or loss. Many believe that our knowledge of the factors that affect the ability of species to excel in nature is insufficient, and that some microorganisms may proliferate out of control after release in nature. Once released, these living organisms cannot be recalled or sealed in a drum. These organisms can grow, reproduce and migrate. Rifkin (1987) states that introducing new organisms into an environment is analogous ecologically to the introduction of exotic organisms. While most have fit in or died out, a few have become major pests. These include the starling, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, fire ants and the gypsy moth. Among them, these exotics cost Americans hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
  2. Similarly, there is concern that some genetically engineered crop plant may themselves become uncontrollable weeds, because resistance to major herbicides has been spliced into their genetic make-up.
  3. Many are concerned that genetically engineered farm animals may experience pain and suffering because of dysfunctional changes in their physical structure.
  4. Finally, there is concern that large farm operators have a substantial advantage over small farm operators in benefiting from breakthroughs in biotechnology.

Public Perception Research Needs

As this review has indicated, the extent of the research on public perception of biotechnology is extremely limited. It is difficult to imagine that while industry and universities have spent billions of dollars on biotechnology research, there has been barely a cent spent on researching public perceptions of biotechnology or the social consequences of biotechnology. This research has not been neglected because social scientists have not attempted to obtain research funding. Numerous efforts to obtain funding have met in failure.

Perhaps industry and government didn’t think it was needed or necessary. Perhaps industry is afraid of what this research will find. In one of the few studies completed on the social consequences of biotechnology, economists at Cornell University concluded that within three years of the time that bovine somatotropin reached the market place, there would be a 25 to 30 percent reduction in the number of dairy farms. However, isn’t it better to have such information available so that planning can be made to accentuate the positive and avoid the negative? Isn’t it better to know in advance what the consequences will be, rather than struggle to adapt to them after the fact?

This lack of public perception research may be a major factor in the negative public attitudes that abound. Thus, early in the development of modern biotechnologies, the public was obtaining information from the opposition groups, but nothing from the biotechnology industry. When biotechnology industries belatedly realized there was a public perception problem and did launch a public relations campaign, they did not deal with the issues that concerned the general public. Using bovine somatotropin as an example, Hornig (1991) found that the approach of the biotechnology industries instead emphasized the idea that technological development is progress, that biotechnology has been developed at great expense and that the industries wouldn’t have gone to such great expense if the benefits were not extensive, that the use of biotechnology was inevitable and that if we didn’t use it first we would lose our competitive advantage to other countries, and that biotechnology was only a tool and therefore it was value neutral.

It appears that a number of individual scientists are now recognizing the public perception problems that biotechnology faces. Often those scientists view concern with the social consequences of biotechnology, the public acceptance of biotechnology, or the variety of government controls and regulations as hindrances that prevent the natural progress of society. Bentley (1987) noted that when fire was introduced into ancient human societies, it was done without the vast array of government regulations to allay concerns about health and safety and the social consequences. Rather, human beings accepted fire and used it to help build a civilized world. It now appears that the problems with public perception of biotechnology are so severe that the future of biotechnology is very much in doubt. Opposition organizations are strong and they will not easily go away. Public perceptions and attitudes do not readily change. The failure of the biotechnology industry to determine public perceptions early and to develop educational programs to deal with the concerns of the public has been a major blunder that will not be easily overcome. Berrier (1987) notes that no one would attempt to market a new breakfast biscuit or a new brand of toothpaste with as little information about public attitudes as the biotechnology industry has.

Given that there is so little available research to review on public perceptions of biotechnology, this final section will be used to outline important lines of research that should be conducted in the near future. It appears that there are three types of social research relative to biotechnology that are critically needed. Each will be briefly discussed below.

The Use of Biotechnology by Producers

If developments in biotechnology are to achieve the benefits that many scientists believe to be possible, they first have to be adopted and used in the farming practices of American producers. However, initial evidence indicates that many farmers are reluctant to utilize biotechnologies in their farming operations. Some of the factors that may inhibit this adoption include negative perceptions, misinformation, alleged risks, and fear (Vogler 1986). It is essential that researchers gain a much greater understanding of the process of adoption of biotechnology by producers. It is also important to identify the segments of the farm population that are most and least likely to adopt agricultural biotechnologies. Such information would be helpful in developing educational programs to reach non-adopters. There is a long history of adoption-diffusion research in rural sociology that can provide the basis for this research on the adoption and diffusion of biotechnology. Literally thousands of studies have been done, and there is a fairly solid understanding of the characteristics of how both the innovation and the producer are related to decisions about whether or not to adopt (Rogers 1983).

Perceptions of Biotechnology by the General Public

Another critical obstacle that must be overcome if the potential positive benefits from biotechnology are to be achieved is that consumers must be willing to purchase goods produced using biotechnology. Without a market, even those producers utilizing biotechnologies cannot continue. Some preliminary evidence indicates that many consumers are concerned about factors such as the long-term health and environmental effects of biotechnology, and are therefore reluctant to consume biotechnology products (Batra and Klassen 1987). Perhaps these fears are unfounded and based on misinformation, but the consequences will still be a negative effect on the market for biotechnology products. To what extent do consumers perceive that there are risks in utilizing commodities produced with biotechnology? How extensive are these perceived risks, and what degree of risks are consumers willing to take? This type of information will prove vital to those marketing biotechnology and biotechnology products as it will help them know where their problems lie and may suggest educational and other strategies to help overcome existing problems.

Social Consequences of Biotechnology

Previous experience has taught us that technological developments in agriculture can have dramatic effects on farm families and rural communities. During this century, technological breakthroughs in agriculture helped make the American farmer the most efficient producer the world has ever known. With the use of modern technologies the American farmer is able to provide the American public with food that is plentiful, relatively safe, and cheap. At the same time, these technological developments have had dramatic effects on families, as they resulted in a tremendous reduction in the number of farms and a corresponding increase in the size of the average farm as describe earlier.

A half-century of social science research on the consequences of technology will be helpful in doing this type of research (Berardi and Geisler 1984). Past research in this area has found that there are major differences in the consequences of technology depending on whether the technology is “yield enhancing” or “labor saving.” For the most part, the mechanical breakthroughs of the past (such as the tractor) were “labor saving” technologies, while most biotechnologies are “yield enhancing” technologies (Dorner 1983). However, there were some technologies of the past that had yield enhancing aspects, and some biotechnologies may have labor saving implications. Labor saving technologies make it possible for individual producers to greatly increase the size of the operation that they can operate. In the past, this led to the trend of rapidly increasing farm sizes, and a corresponding decrease in the number of farms. In comparison, the impacts of yield enhancing technologies are substantially different. The increasing yields for a particular product tends to result in a surplus of that product. This market surplus operates to drive the price that producers receive for that product down. Thus, producers who are not as efficient and cannot produce the product profitably will be forced out of the business or into the production of other products. The long- term effect will be that there are fewer producers of some good since fewer production units are needed.


The completion of these three types of research would result in the biotechnology industries being aware of the types of educational programs needed. In addition, planners and decision makers would have information available to assist them in deciding whether or not to allow the release of various biotechnologies. However, before these benefits can be achieved, the research must be accomplished.


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