The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

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What Shapes Our Beliefs About Biotechnology?

What Shapes Our Beliefs About Biotechnology?

Shoppers and Trends

February 26, 2014

More people feel that the benefits of biotechnology outweigh the risks, however, our attitudes towards genetically modified foods are largely driven by our values about science and the world around us, according to a recent study from The Australian Department of Industry Ipsos Social Research Institute. The report set out to explore differences in awareness, perceptions and attitudes in regards to biotechnology. “Biotechnology” is a term used to describe the use of biology in a range of fields from agriculture and pharmaceutical development to the production of genetically modified organisms.

For the study, scientists divided those interviewed into four segments, each with their own distinct attitudes on the topic of biotechnology. Segment one was the least supportive of biotech, and believes that technological change is too fast to keep up with, that science benefits the rich more than the poor and that we rely too much on science and not enough on faith. Segment one was more likely to be female, aged 51 to 75, and to speak languages other than English at home. 

Segment two wasn’t thrilled with biotech either, though they tended to be more concerned with related or perceived risks, and they were more aware of what biotech does in our lives than the first segment. This group was more supportive of biotech than segment one, however, they were far less supportive than those in segments three and four. Segment two participants were the least likely to have children under the age of 10 in the home. Also, this group was least likely to agree that human activities have impact on the planet.

In segment three, participants had a high interest in science and technology, and believe strongly that the benefits of technology far outweigh the risks. Interestingly, this group had a greater proportion of children under 10 in the home, and believed most strongly that children should be protected from all risks. Meanwhile, segment four was the most positive toward science and tech, and agreed that everyone should take an interest in science. Most importantly, they believe that the benefits are greater than the risks. Segment four was the most knowledgeable about biotech of all the segments, and the most supportive of genetically modified technologies.

Overall, the majority of consumers, no matter what segment, agree that science is a big part of our lives and that benefits of science are greater than any harmful effects. And the vast majority believes that human activities have an effect on the planet. Although awareness of biotechnology was quite high, just 23% believed they could explain it to a friend. Twice as many males as females (30% versus 16%) believed they could explain biotechnology to a friend. Females and older participants were more cautious than other demographics about biotechnology.

“Females are less enthusiastic than males about technology and more concerned about technologies that have potential health impacts. The highest ages of concern tend to be around child-bearing and raising ages – which align with values of gatekeeper for the family, and then again in late retirement, which align with values of the pace of change happening too fast,” says an Australian Department of Industry Spokesperson.

Values were a bigger indicator of attitude than any of the demographic variables that showed lower level indicators. Beliefs, like attitudes, sit along a spectrum, and vary from strongly entrenched to mild and more receptive to change. You can’t change attitudes or values easily, says an Australian Department of Industry Spokesperson, but you can reframe messages to better align with the different values that people have, so they are more likely to be considered and less likely to be rejected.

When looking at support for genetically modified (GM) foods over time specifically, the bulk of the population feels slightly positive about them. There is more support for GM foods in processed foods, and less support for GM fruits and vegetables. Half of consumers believe that the benefits of GM crops outweigh the risks, while one in six feel that the risk outweighs the benefits. Perhaps most telling, 60% of those opposed to GM crops would change their mind if the crops could demonstrate positive outcomes to the environment and health.

“Communication of the benefits is less relevant than the producers of the products making GM crops and foods that align with public values, and are products that people want and value. Trying to communicate the benefits of a product that the public are uncertain about is less likely to be successful than communicating the benefits of a product that the public values – and value in this instance comes from the public perceiving that they were involved somehow in the product’s development (through consultation), that it is safe (regulation), that they have a choice in it (consumer choice), that the benefits far outweigh any potential risks (consumer benefit), and that the information in the public domain is neither contradictory nor confusing (information),” says an Australian Department of Industry Spokesperson.

Generally, there was a strong agreement that “science is such a big part of our lives that everyone should take an interest”. There was also a high level of agreement that “new technologies excite me more than they concern me”, and that the “benefits of science are greater than any harmful effects”. 

“There is also a strong correlation with support for science and technology and doing well at science in school – and those who do poorly in science at school tend to have negative attitudes towards science. It is unclear, though, if the value drives the performance at school, or the other way around,” adds an Australian Department of Industry Spokesperson. “There is not enough evidence yet to say definitively what drives the formation of such values, though clearly education, parents and community play a part.”