Public optimism in biotech

September 25, 1998

Europeans support the use of biotechnology to produce medicines and genetic tests for certain diseases. But they think there is a great risk to society in inserting human genes into animals to create organs for transplant into humans and in using gene technology in food production, writes Kam Patel.

The findings come from a study of public attitudes to biotechnology based on interviews with nearly 16,000 people in 15 countries.

The study found that although Europeans generally take an "optimistic" view of biotechnology, only three out of ten would want to buy genetically modified fruit if it tasted better. The British, Portuguese and Dutch head the list of those claiming to be willing to buy such fruit. Those who know more about biotechnology were more inclined.

Other findings include: n the more useful biotechnology applications are considered to be for society, the more survey participants felt them to be morally acceptable n only three out of ten Europeans think some degree of risk from biotechnology should be accepted in return for increased economic competitiveness in Europe. Ireland and Britain are most receptive to this idea n the vast majority think genetically modified food should be clearly labelled n most would prefer industry to use traditional breeding methods rather than biotechnology to alter hereditary characteristics of plants and animals n only three in ten agree that modern biotechnology is so complex it is a waste of time consulting the public about it n four out of ten think religious organisations should have a say in regulating biotechnology n Europeans display least confidence in political parties, industry and religious organisations to "tell them the truth about modern biotechnology". Politicians fare the worst.

The survey revealed great concern about leaving biotechnology regulation to industry. Only 20 per cent of Europeans were in favour of such a move. A third think that international bodies such as the United Nations are best placed to regulate biotechnology, followed by scientific organisations.

The respondents expressed most confidence in biotechnology information that came from consumer organisations. The next most trusted information sources were environmental protection groups and, far behind, schools and universities.

People felt that consumer and environmental watchdogs were most likely to tell the truth about genetically modified foods, but they were most likely to believe the medical profession on the issue of human genes in animals.

The Europeans and Modern Biotechnology is published by the European Commission, DGXII, B-1049 Brussels.

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