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GM technology - people waiting to be persuaded

While people in the UK are now more optimistic about biotechnology and less opposed to GM crops and GM foods than in 1999, the jury of public opinion is still out, according to new LSE research published today (Wednesday 23 July).

Professor George Gaskell and colleagues from LSE have analysed public attitudes to GM from 1991. Their report Ambivalent GM Nation? shows that many people are unconvinced about the benefits of GM agri-foods; a small majority now supports GM crops and the public splits 50/50 on GM foods.

The research compiles for the first time a series of Eurobarometer surveys charting the public's views of biotechnology before, during and after the 'watershed years' of 1996 to 1999. Through the 1990s people became steadily less optimistic about biotechnology and less supportive of GM crops and GM foods. Yet, the controversies over GM agriculture had no impact on public support for biomedical applications, widely thought to be beneficial even if they are also risky.

Post 1999 the research notes a change in the climate of opinion towards GM; where a majority was opposed in 1999, a small majority now supports GM crops and the public splits 50/50 on GM foods. This obvious ambivalence is reflected in the respondents' intentions about buying and eating GM foods. Some reject them altogether; others acknowledge, for example, the benefits of lower pesticide residues and still others seem almost enthusiastic. In 2002 there is also more confidence in industry and government.

What might account for this change in the public's view of agri-food biotechnologies? The research suggests three possible factors, a new culture of transparency in the regulation of biotechnology, the European moratorium on GM crops and new proposals in Europe for the control of GM crops. All these may have contributed to taking the heat out of the controversy.

Professor Gaskell said: 'It is important to note that an improvement in the climate of opinion for agri-food biotechnologies has occurred in more or less all the EU member states since 1999. This cautions against parochialism, the identification of causes unique to the UK and underlines the value of comparative research. That many of the public say they are willing to be persuaded on the issue confirms the value of debates such as GM Nation?'

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23 July 2003

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