What Consumers Want to Know About Biotechnology

Christine M. Bruhn

Director
Center for Consumer Research
University of California
Davis, CA 95616

[published February 1994]

Consumer attitudes toward biotechnology are generally positive. However, the public has concerns and questions which should be addressed. These are highlighted by special interest groups who build on fears. Unless balanced by facts and scientific perspective, the number of consumers with concerns could increase. My assessment of consumer interest is based on a review of the literature, including the Hoban and Kendall study, and experiences discussing biotechnology in meetings with chefs, the media and the public. The majority of consumers respond favorable to biotechnology. The recent Hoban and Kendall study (1992) found that 67% believe they will benefit from biotechnology in the next five years. About 75% of the people thought biotechnology would have a positive effect on farm economics, and food quality and nutrition. Over half thought the effect on environmental quality, farm chemical use, and fish and wildlife would be beneficial. Some consumers are concerned about the ethics and safety of transferring genetic material. People are uncertain what gets transferred when a gene is snipped from one species and inserted into another. Cartoons of fishy tomatoes or potatoes with wings play on the public’s limited knowledge of gene transfer. The distinction between transferring a trait and changing the type of organism must be made clear. Additionally, the oneness of nature and “a communality” of chemicals across organisms should be noted. People are concerned that any modification disrupts nature and unforeseen consequences could ensue. Biotechnology is not unique in eliciting this concern. Only about half of those interviewed found traditional cross-pollination and one-third found animal breeding acceptable.

Ethical concerns relate to applications of biotechnology to animals

This is an age in which people are concerned about treating other creatures humanely. They are sensitive to allegations that animals may be exploited to serve human’s demands. It is natural to be concerned that a new technology might have risks, whereas traditional practices are considered safe, or at least the risks are routine and judged to be relatively small. In 1906, Luther Burbank expressed concern about the techniques of crossbreeding: We have recently advanced our knowledge of genetics to the point where we can manipulate life in a way never intended by nature. We must proceed with utmost caution in the application of this new found knowledge. Consumers today view as potentially risky the unfamiliar and uncommon practices of transferring genes from one organism to another. Consumers want to know that risks have been examined and safety is comparable to that of other products on the market. Many express concern that the company releasing the biotechnology product is responsible for safety testing. They believe this responsibility should rest with the regulatory authority. There is a need then to address the regulatory process and note the oversight role of federal agencies. Benefits of a new technology should be equitably distributed and available to all, regardless of size or location of operation. People value the traditional view of the family farm. A technology is considered less desirable if it is available preferentially to corporate agriculture. Frequently the argument is presented that companies will charge prices for new technology products that go beyond the reach of the family farmer.

People want the tools of science to be applied to issues of concern

People have indicated they will evaluate individual applications of this technology. In the Hoban and Kendall study, over 60% felt that use of biotechnology to make cotton plants resistant to damage from weed control chemicals was acceptable. This application of biotechnology is more acceptable than the general public response to crossbreeding.

Use of biotechnology to help improve farm animal disease-resistance was acceptable to about 50% of the sample, and was more acceptable than the general use of crossbreeding to improve animals. About 45% found biotechnology acceptable when it was used to produce farm animals with leaner meat.

In the Hoban and Kendall study, people indicated that they are least interested in learning about the science of biotechnology, rather they want to know the risks and benefits of the technology, the human health-care uses and other potential benefits. Biotechnology does address issues the public cares about, such as food quality and environmental issues. Although the general public may lack depth in scientific training, people of all ages, philosophies and formal education are interested in learning more about biotechnology. The scientific community must respond, or the slate will be clear for those who persuade by fear, and human kind will be the loser if they prevail.

Potential allergies from food modified by recombinant DNA is of particular concern

Although the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) proposed policy addresses the presence of allergens, the public must not realize this since the allergy question always arises in public discussions. People are concerned that they may be allergic to a food the FDA does not recognize as an allergen. The perceptions of allergies are higher than actual occurrence, according to Dean Darrel Metcalfe, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. He notes that about one in three people think they have food allergies, however in double-blind tests, less than three percent of children and less then one percent of adults actually have food allergies. In the public’s view, food allergies are widespread and restaurants or markets selling genetically engineered food will receive numerous questions about potential allergic reactions.

Does the public want to know when biotechnology is used in a product?

Those surveyed by Hoban and Kendall indicate they do, but one must note that biotechnology ranks fifth out of seven items, some of which are not currently labeled. There is a tendency to respond affirmatively when asked if you want something. When consumers were asked this question there was no indication that providing the information would entail costs, either in higher prices or limited availability. Therefore this strongly affirmative response should not be taken at face value.

Paul B. Thompson, Texas A&M, suggests that there are two philosophic approaches to labeling, either an evaluation of performance or structure. A performance focus evaluates the impact of a label based on the end-state produced. If one thought the public would avoid a labeled product out of fear or ignorance, and this avoidance was not health enhancing, then clearly labels should not be used. In contrast, a structure focus specifies the conditions of consumer choice with no consideration of the consequences of that choice. Under this approach, informed consent is paramount and a label is appropriate.

Biotechnology-driven labels will stimulate patterns of conduct by consumers, processor and manufacturers

The label could be interpreted by the consumer as a warning on a risky product. It could result in higher food prices, in part because of the necessity of handling a different line of commodities. It may hinder the utilization and availability of biotechnology-derived products because manufacturers do not want to devote time and resources to product control. In the long run, labeling could reduce utilization of a tool that may successfully address issues of public importance. By the performance approach, mandatory labels may not promote public well-being and should not be used. Optional negative labeling, or “No biotechnology” labels, have been suggested as an alternative. This option preserves choice; however it also is not without complications. Certification that specifies the extent of product modification would be required. This type of labeling could be perceived as a warning, like “no cholesterol,” or “no pesticides,” or it could be presented as a product style, like Kosher or regional labeling. Thompson contends that consumer confidence is enhanced by participation and consent in the purchase decision. Hoban and Kendall’s work and consumer studies in other areas indicates the public is more accepting for a process or an ingredient when the reasons for its application are presented. The potential for voluntary labeling with explanatory information should be explored. Labels such as “Developed using biotechnology for superior flavor,” would be appropriate for sweeter fruit. “Modified by biotechnology for more environmentally benign farming,” could be used for plants carrying a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene. Statement development and use would require regulatory oversight; however they preserve choice and bring the label into an informational rather than warning status.

Summary

Consumers are positive about biotechnology, however they want to be assured that potential risks are foreseen and controlled. They want the tools of science applied to issues they perceive as important, and the benefits fairly distributed without exploitation of other creatures or the environment. A voluntary label describing the reasons for applications of biotechnology would be positively viewed by the public.

References

  • Baumgardt, B.R. and M.A. Martin, eds. Purdue Univ. Agric. Exp. Sta., West Lafayette Ind. p. 139. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). 1987. New Developments in biotechnology: Public perceptions of biotechnology. OTA-BP-BA-45. Office of Technology Assessment, U.S. Congress. US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
  • Hoban, T.J. IV and P.A. Kendall. 1992. Consumer attitudes about the use of biotechnology in agriculture and food production. North Carolina State University.
  • Lacy, W.B., L. Busch and L.R. Lacy. 1991. Public perceptions of agricultural biotechnology. In “Agricultural Biotechnology,” BR Baumgardt and MA Martin, eds. Purdue Univ. Agric. Exp. Sta., West Lafayette Ind. p. 139.
  • Schutz, H.G., C.M. Bruhn and K.V. Diaz-Knauf. 1989. Consumer attitudes toward irradiated foods: effects of labeling and benefits information. Food Technology 43(10) 80-86.
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