The public’s view of animal biotech

Animal biotechnology has expanded in the last three decades. Public perceptions will continue to play, a significant role in the development and commercialization of its applications, says a report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, or CAST.

Technologies, CAST says, take place within a cultural context and public opinion will play a role in the pace and direction of technology development. Two questions can be gleaned from public opinion studies on agricultural biotechnology. What is the purpose for the specific application? How is the work carried out?

Key Points

• Public opinion will set the pace and direction of animal biotech.

• Applications to generate health benefits are viewed most positively.

• Public believes risk goes beyond health to include moral hazard issues.

What is the purpose?

Many studies reveal a consistent hierarchy of purpose: Applications intended to generate health and medical benefits are viewed most positively, followed by applications with environmental benefits. European surveys have found a consistent ordering, in decreasing favorability, for “genetic testing for heritable diseases; drug production using bacteria modified to contain human genes; bioremediation using genetically modified bacteria; medicinal human cell or tissue cloning; use of plant genes in GM crops; animal cloning to produce drugs in their milk; and for producing foods to make them higher in protein, keep longer, or change the taste.” The percentage of survey respondents seeing usefulness ranged from 83% to 54%; moral acceptability, from 74% to 36%.

The way research is carried out — including the object of manipulation — also influences public perceptions according to the CAST report. Work on microorganisms generates the least concern, followed by work on plants. More objections are registered for genetic modification of animals. Whereas approximately one in five persons in the U.S. thinks that creating hybrid plants through genetic modification is “morally wrong,” more than half feel that way about GM animals (Hallman et al. 2002). This disapproval of GM animals seems to cut across gender, age, and educational categories, although more women than men have expressed disapproval. Although health and medical benefits provided by genetic modification are supported most frequently, that support sometimes is modulated by how the benefits are obtained. For example, American and Canadian respondents view drugs and vaccines produced through animals less favorably than drugs and vaccines produced through plants.

International trend

These opinion patterns are similar internationally. Consumers in 10 countries were surveyed about different biotechnology uses. More than 80% supported using biotechnology to develop human medicines; 75% supported using biotechnology for environmental cleanup. Slightly more than 50%, however, indicated support for GM animal feed that resulted in healthier meat products, whereas 40% supported the use of cloned animals for medical research.

It is noteworthy that almost 75% of consumers in these 10 countries opposed the genetic modification of animals to increase productivity.

The advocacy of animal rights groups and the incorporation of pets as part of the family circle have made the status of animals a mainstream concern. Investigations into public views on animal experimentation, for example, have shown that people are concerned with (1) knowing the purpose of the experiment; (2) avoiding potential unnecessary suffering of the animals; (3) ensuring that requirements for protecting animal welfare are met; and (4) determining whether alternatives are available.

A second concern is the boundary between what is considered “natural” and “unnatural.” Many people feel that the crossing of species boundaries is unnatural. The process of genetic engineering also is associated with images of the “unnatural.” A third concern is the long-term impacts of GM crops and animals on human health and the environment.

Decision factors

Some studies have found that it is the perception of benefits that acts as an important decision rule, leading individuals to determine whether perceived risks are more or less significant. Also, quite often, the public does not always interpret risk and benefit in purely utilitarian terms. “In the public mind, risks go beyond issues of health to include moral hazards (Is it right to do this?), democratic hazards (Who is funding and controlling biotechnology?), and uncertainties (Will there be as-yet-unknown adverse consequences?),” the CAST report says.

One of the more consistent predictors seems to be trust in the managers of a technology, including its regulators. A study of consumers in five European countries demonstrated that “proactive consumer protection” was related positively to consumers’ evaluation of food risk management quality, whereas “opaque and reactive risk management” was related negatively to food risk management quality.

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decoding efforts: Deciphering the genetic code of livestock could help researchers reduce the total numbers of live animals needed for studies. At the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., technician Kristen Katzberg reads DNA sequences.

Photo by Keith Weller

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animals’ perspective: ARS animal behavior scientists are workign to discover livestock view the world. They hope to identify and reduce excessive farm animal stress to improve health and productivity.

Photo by Peggy Greb

This article published in the September, 2010 edition of CALIFORNIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.