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14 October 2013

European resistance to GM may be a myth

If you ask questions about genetic modification in negative terms, you usually get an answer along the same lines. This is a conclusion drawn in a study of consumers’ attitudes to biotechnology that Mistra Biotech has now carried out.

Europeans have long been perceived as generally critical of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including crops. But whether this is true is uncertain: it may be due to the many opinion polls in this area to date that have been based on negative premises. This is shown by a new study from Mistra Biotech that has compiled results from 241 opinion polls in a total of 58 regions in Europe and other parts of the world.

‘We’ve reviewed more than 1,600 questions about consumer attitudes to biotechnology and genetic engineering. In the European studies the tone is generally more negative, and they deal more often with risks, or moral and ethical aspects, than corresponding surveys elsewhere in the world,’ says Professor Carl-Johan Lagerkvist of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), who was in charge of the report.

‘This may be an explanation for the perception that Europeans are suspicious of the technology. In short, the answers you get depend on the questions you ask.’

Unreliable decision support

As a rule, the European studies also cover only one aspect, such as whether consumers are prepared to pay more for a genetically modified product, at a time. Consumers seldom get the opportunity to explain what they think of GMOs in broader terms.

In their study, the Mistra Biotech researchers themselves did not investigate what consumers think of GM or biotechnology. The study therefore tells us nothing about the true state of public opinion or whether previous questionnaire surveys showing substantial differences in attitudes among countries and regions alike provide a correct picture.

‘So if politicians and companies use results from studies with a narrow angle or a negative tone, there’s a major risk of them taking decisions on incorrect grounds,’ Lagerkvist says.

The study shows that people tend to be more afraid of uncertain risk factors than they are optimistic about possible advantages. Lower price and superior taste were not aspects that appreciably affected the respondents’ attitudes. On the other hand, products with medical properties are considered promising.

Text: Per Westergård, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

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