Ethical sheep and moral maize

July 18, 2003

Biotechnology, in particular the "new" biotechnology involving intervention at the level of the gene, is a controversial subject. Martin Bauer and George Gaskell take its perception in the minds of the European public together with its coverage in the media as the main subjects of the book.

The work expands on the findings of a four-year European Union-funded project (1996-99) that sampled public perceptions in 17 European countries (about 1,000 respondents per country) and involved a large number of social scientists. The model advanced by Bauer and Gaskell is that of a biotechnology "movement", comprising a scientific-industrial element, groups that may benefit from the technology (for example, patient groups) and groups that have concerns about the technology. Development is then subject to "control" by a combination of regulatory frameworks (governance), public perception and media coverage (public opinion).

The book is conveniently split into four sections. The first deals with the general framework of regulation, media coverage and public knowledge. The second looks in more detail at public perceptions and groupings, while the third comprises two case studies - the reaction to Roundup Ready soya in four European countries and reactions to Dolly the cloned sheep. The fourth section takes a comparative look at the situation in the US.

Before embarking on an analysis of the European survey data, there is a useful chapter charting developments in the public sphere from the advent of recombinant DNA (the transfer of genetic material from one species to another) in 1973 to the announcement of Dolly in 1997. This period is broken down into phases, the first being one of fundamental scientific research, followed in 1978-90 by a realisation of the economic potential of the new technology, with the emergence of the first products, such as human growth factor, insulin and interferon.

Since then, government approaches have generally been to introduce sufficient regulation to contain risk while allowing and encouraging research to stay competitive. Between 1990 and 1996 a regulatory framework emerged, as "latecomer" countries conformed to European directives.

However, some have been altered in response to public opinion - for example, the move to require genetically modified foods to be labelled was a victory for the European Parliament.

The last phase, following the first shipments of GM soya in 1996 and the announcement of Dolly, saw renewed opposition and the emergence of a stronger consumer voice. These two developments also opened public debates in countries such as Italy that had previously paid little attention to the subject.

The overview chapter provides useful complementary information for those familiar with the science, but a few more details about the scientific principles and developments would have been useful for the more general reader. It might also have dispelled a suspicion of a slight anti-science bias. For example, the authors appear to criticise scientists for undertaking "risk assessment" purely on the basis of physical hazards, ignoring value considerations, and, because they are also stakeholders, of being partisan in promoting the technology. This is perhaps unfair: classical risk assessment is appropriate for laboratory-based work and, indeed, GM food products have been tested more thoroughly than any other foods. However, to assess risk associated with situations, such as releases to the environment and approval of products for retail, the government should certainly have involved a wider, more coordinated constituency of experts and interest groups, as well as scientists.

The authors have analysed more than 5,000 newspaper articles, charting the changes in coverage of different aspects of biotechnology, noting which were reported as "benefit" and which as "risk". Overall, coverage has increased. It has been fairly positive in Poland, Greece and Finland, while in Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden it has been more negative. Positive views were particularly related to medical aspects, while ethical and economic issues had less attention. Interestingly, countries with a more positive response had more coverage citing scientists, while those with a more negative view included more references to politicians.

Ultimately, the issue for policy-makers, industrial interests and scientists is the perception of the wider public. One clear finding is that greater knowledge does not correlate with support. Indeed, there is evidence that a more informed public tends to be less supportive. Here a north-south trend emerges: southern European countries with a lower level of education are more receptive to biotechnology, although this acceptance is likely to be unstable, being built on a low knowledge base.

Across the whole sample the level of knowledge of some aspects of science is particularly low: thus, in responding to the statement "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes", only 36 per cent of respondents gave the correct (false) answer. Having said that, the public clearly discriminates between different technologies. There is greater acceptance of biotechnology that is medically relevant than that related to crop plants and foods from GM sources, although use of animals for xenotransplantation is not supported.

Interestingly, when respondents were asked whether each of six biotechnologies (genetic testing through to xenotransplants) were useful, risky, morally acceptable and should be encouraged, the score for moral acceptability had the strongest correlation with whether the application should be encouraged. A separate chapter shows, from some elegant cluster analysis, that across Europe those clearly opposed to biotechnology can be divided into two groups: a forward-looking "green" group that is highly knowlegeable and is concerned at the risks, and a "blue" or backward-looking group that is less informed and concerned about the idea of "playing with nature".

This emergent moral view of biotechnology is highlighted by media coverage and public pronouncements after the cloning of Dolly. Press coverage was analysed in 12 European countries over a three-week period following the announcement. The reactions comprised a mixture of wonder, noting the beneficial possibilities for human health, and concern over the implications, particularly the spectre of human cloning.

Concern also emerges when comparing perceptions in Europe with those in the US, which are more positive. Most telling were public responses to "knowledge" and "image" questions: those to knowledge questions were similar, but the European score for threatening images of biotechnology was significantly greater than the US score.

Although in places the authors' language seems slightly fanciful (for example, the recurring use of the term actors), this is a very readable work, combining commentary with detailed analysis of data. It provides strong evidence that the framework "controlling" the biotechnology movement is predicated more on public perceptions than regulatory processes. There appears to be a significant moral dimension to public attitudes, particularly with aspects of the technology that are more "visible", such as GM crops and foods. Yet the link between media coverage and public perception does not seem as close as might have been expected. This book will therefore be useful not only to policy-makers, but also to those involved in dialogue with the public. (I imagine the public relations office of Monsanto may acquire several copies.) At the wider level of science communication, the challenge is to explore some deep-rooted attitudes that a straight, factual approach cannot address. However, while the reader might go away with a negative view of the European public, reflecting that attempts to educate result only in greater suspicion of science and technology, I would temper this with a more positive view. First, it is encouraging to see that across Europe some judgements at least are made using a moral framework, and, second, controversy and conflict should be viewed as positive processes.

Stimulation of the public mind is the basis for democracy - its greatest enemies are apathy and indifference.

Peter Lumsden is reader in plant physiology, University of Central Lancashire.

Biotechnology: The Making of a Global Controversy

Editor - Martin Bauer and George Gaskell
ISBN - 0 521 77317 2and 77439 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £55.00 and £19.95
Pages - 411

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