NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- A number of studies already show Americans are still confused about biotechnology. Now, a study planned by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University will poll retailers and others in the food industry to determine, among other things, what they think is going to happen now -- and how they think they should relate to the subject.
FPI was among those that focused initial survey efforts on the general public's biotechnology attitudes. Commenting on its first study, one of the researchers, William Hallman, associate director of FPI's food biotechnology program, pointed out that many Americans, upon hearing the terms "biotechnology, genetic engineering or genetic modification," conjure up negative images or none at all.
"Biotechnology is still an abstract concept for most Americans. So there are real differences in how they respond to questions about the subject in general vs. questions about specific biotech products. What our findings suggest is that people are willing to consider the characteristics of the products of biotechnology rather than deciding that all biotechnology is good or bad," Hallman said.
With that in mind, FPI has chosen, in its second study, to direct its queries to the industry that produces and sells food products.
"Right now, we're in the planning stages for that. We're contacting people in government and in academia as well as in the industry before we do the survey, to ask them what they think is important for us to ask. We want to obtain information that will be useful to them," Hallman said.
The FPI research project is comprised of four studies, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the first one, most respondents said they didn't know much about biotechnology, few said they had heard or read much about it, and a full two-thirds said they had never had a conversation about it. As a result, their answers often appeared to be in conflict with each other.
For example, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they would approve of genetic modification to create less-expensive or better-tasting produce, but nearly half (48%) said they wouldn't buy fresh vegetables if they were labeled as genetically modified products.
A majority (58%) of respondents said they approve of using genetic modification techniques to produce new plants, but less than one-third (28%) approve of using the techniques to produce new animals. Different words prompted different thoughts and thus different responses, Hallman pointed out.
"[Survey respondents] were more apt to be positive about 'biotechnology' than about 'genetic engineering' or 'genetic modification.' They often associated the latter with the cloning of Dolly, the sheep, or creating monsters," Hallman said.
Many just didn't know what genetic modification is or where it is applied. The study showed that only four in 10 Americans, for example, are aware that GM foods are for sale at their local market despite the fact that genetically modified corn and soy are ingredients in products that are widely available.
In one part of the study, GM plants that have clear benefits for society got high approval rates. For example, 85% said they would approve of the use of genetic modification to create more nutritious grains that could feed people in poor countries, and more than 80% said they would OK genetically modified rice with enhanced vitamin A that might help prevent blindness.
But doubts and fears are reflected in respondents' answers to a 10-item true/false quiz that was included. Nearly a third didn't know that eating a genetically modified fruit wouldn't alter their own genes, and a third were not convinced that tomatoes genetically modified with catfish genes wouldn't taste "fishy," the quiz answers showed. In fact, only 40% could answer seven or more of the 10 questions correctly.
In another part of the study, nearly seven in 10 people interviewed endorsed the idea that "companies involved in creating GM crops believe profits are more important than safety," and nearly 60% agreed that "the government does not have the tools to properly regulate GM foods."
In truth, the farmer and the manufacturer have gained the most so far, but when consumers see that biotechnology can bring them a better-tasting product or one that has specific health benefits, their attitudes may change, Hallman said.
The terminology itself presents a problem to consumers, said Marvin Spira, the Food Policy Institute's associate director of administration and marketing.
"One thing made clear in the first study is that the terminology is suspect as well as mysterious. We have to find what's acceptable to the consumer," Spira said, explaining the sequence of FPI studies in this research project.
"Our first objective was to find out what the consumer's perception of the subject is. Then, this second phase will investigate what the food industry thinks is going to happen, what effect it will have on their particular discipline, and what they're going to do. Whether they like it or not, [biotechnology] is here. It's not going away. In fact, it's the future of the food industry. That's why the USDA is spending this kind of money on this kind of research."
The USDA recently granted FPI $2.5 million to continue the research that began with the first study released in December. Future studies will look at how people came to know what they know about biotechnology, and will keep tabs on changing attitudes, as well as investigate other aspects of the subject.
The Food Policy Institute was created at Rutgers to focus on policy issues facing the food industry and food consumers. Through its research, FPI's mission is to maximize the quality of decision making within the food industry and government, as well as among consumers, Spira said.
"There's no advocacy on our part, or any action plan. We provide in-depth research to make information available to help those people who are in a position to act."
Hallman invited members of the the food industry to e-mail FPI at email@example.com to share ideas about future biotech-related investigative tracks.