Brussels, 21 May 2003
Despite excitement over the potential of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) among scientists, the European public remains firmly opposed to them. A new report attributes this to fears over food safety and a deepening distrust of agribusiness.
The scientific community's generally upbeat assessment of the promise of GMOs outweighing the risks has had a negligible impact on stemming European public disquiet towards this emerging field. A new report by INRA, France's national institute for agricultural research, investigates the reasons behind this anxiety.
One key factor is the issue of timing. GMOs debut in the European public arena in the mid-1990s coincided with the emergence of several public health scares, including 'mad cow' disease and the transfusion of contaminated blood. By the end of the 1990s, the public debate "was situated in a context strongly influenced by food safety issues", notes the report entitled 'Why are most Europeans opposed to GMOs?'.
GMOs fed into a growing perception – accurate or not – that public health was taking a back seat to financial gain. "[These health scares] caused people to think that firms and public authorities sometimes disregard certain health risks in order to protect certain economic or political interests," the report adds.
This widespread scepticism of agribusiness and industrial farming has led to "mistrust regarding the policies of the public authorities and firms involved in the commercialisation of GMOs increas[ing] sharply".
The report says that the movement opposing GMOs in Europe quickly grew from a small core of environmental groups to incorporate the anti-globalisation movement, farmers' unions, and consumer groups. It mobilised so effectively – and understood the workings of the media so well – that it has come to dominate the public debate. "Shocking headlines revealing hidden dangers and dramatic presentation of issues guarantee wider audiences and have more of an impact than more moderate, qualified articles," the report explains.
The report also singles out the scientific community, who prefer specialised publications and conferences, for their conspicuous absence from the public debate. "Even if researchers have participated in public debates, in total these have reached only a very small audience … Little but silence can be heard from public research." Although, the European Commission's Sixth Framework Programme, under its Science and Society action plan, is working to close this communication gap between the research community and society at large.
The report is downbeat about the prospects of breaking this deadlock in the near future but says that, in the longer term, the changing face of the technology or environmental challenges could boost public support. "Transgenic plants are still in their early stages and various subsequent developments could reduce their potential risks or highlight more positive aspects," the report concludes.