New technologies take time for acceptance. For crop biotechnology, key factors hindering acceptance are the public’s limited understanding of modern agricultural practices and the science involved in biotechnology. Food, an emotional and personal topic, combined with misunderstanding of biotechnology, sensationalized media coverage, and complex ethical and social matters have combined to generate fear in some consumers. Well-organized protest groups will likely continue to center the public debate on issues of uncertainty and mistrust.
Yet biotechnology is becoming more and more a part of our lives. Genome sequencing, and analysis using new tools such as microarrays, allowing for very high throughput analysis of genes and gene expression patterns (64 ,65 ), are accelerating the discovery of genes with possible medical utility. Due to discovered homology in the human genome with that of other species, the use of nonhuman genes and proteins in human therapeutics will become more common. Revenues are expected to increase for biotechnology-modified crops in general, as a result of the production of crops containing "output traits."
One of the biggest barriers facing the acceptance of this technology are European import restrictions. Antibiotechnology sentiment is much stronger in Europe than in the U.S. European public support for applications of biotechnology that would protect crops from insects dropped from 58% in 1996 to 42% in 1999. Support for biotechnology-improved foods also dropped from 44% in 1996 to 31% in 1999 (53 ). There are many social and cultural reasons for this increase in opposition in Europe, including more sensational and negative media coverage, general support for small farms and open spaces, and a general opposition to foreign producers and their products. There are also political and economical reasons for greater opposition in Europe. Past food crises (e.g., BSE) have undermined confidence in government and exacerbated a general paranoia concerning the food supply. There has been limited educational outreach by the food industry, public leaders, academia or consumers. Antiglobalization sentiments and nontariff trade barriers have further complicated the issue.
Taken as a whole, the European situation is very complicated and unpredictable. However, many key leaders seem to want resolution, and as more products produced using this technology arrive on the market from around the world, there will be fewer alternatives. Consumer education could also be effective if led by European leaders and scientists. So far, the European Union has set out a plan for genetically modified food labels. It states that labels are required if any ingredient in a product contains more than 1% of GM material. Afraid that consumers view GM labels as a warning, European manufacturers are avoiding GM ingredients, thus eliminating choice at the market.
European consumers have expressed interest in identity preservation of GM foods. Undeniably, identity preservation adds cost and complexity to the system. With so many different steps from seed to market, it would take countless measures to ensure proper labeling. This is further complicated by the fact that these genes may not be absolutely confined. For example, it is estimated that in 1999, 8% of Brazil’s soybean crop was GM varieties, even though Brazil had not yet officially approved their use (66 ). In addition, the government of Mexico recently announced that it had found genes engineered in corn among native maize varieties even though genetically modified corn seed has not been approved for sale in Mexico (67 ). More recent studies have not been able to confirm these findings (68 ).
Even though raw or minimally processed foods may be tested with sufficient accuracy, there is no consensus as to what method of testing should be utilized so that quantitative assessments between different laboratories may vary greatly. In addition, with increasing processing, the amount of false positives and false negatives increases due to denaturation of molecules being tested. Therefore, effective identity preservation is currently not achievable. To maintain accurate identity preservation, more sophisticated testing methods will have to be developed and the process must become standardized (69 ).
If a large enough market exists for non-GM foods, the food industry will respond. Consumers will likely have to pay more for GM-free foods, and truthful and nonmisleading labeling language will need to be defined by FDA. Organic foods could become the market channel for these GM-free foods. In any case, the next generation of GM crops might require identity preservation to capture value for farmers and processors.
Consumer education also plays a large role in this whole debate. The study sponsored by the Pew Initiative for Food and Biotechnology in January of 2001 found that the percentage of consumers who thought GM foods are safe increased from 29% to 48% after being informed that more than half of the products available at the grocery store include genetically modified foods. It is clear that agricultural biotechnology is now at a critical juncture, and ongoing educational efforts will need to be expanded both for opinion leaders and consumers. Media coverage will most surely grow on this subject as more products are introduced into the marketplace, but efforts are needed to ensure that the coverage is balanced. Ideally, the criteria most consumers will continue to use when selecting food will be taste, value, nutrition, safety and convenience instead of fear and emotion. If properly developed, agricultural biotechnology represents an opportunity for developing countries to realize tangible health and nutritional benefits with sustainable agriculture and new market niches. In fact, China and India are actively developing this technology, and their support for biotechnology may turn the tide in global public acceptance.
1 Summary of a Life Sciences Research Office Sponsored Special Issues Forum at Experimental Biology 2001, held on April 2, 2001 in Orlando, Florida- supported by unrestricted grant form the Monsanto Corporation.
2 Executive Director, Life Sciences Research Office,9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda 20814. To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: [email protected]
3 Professor and Associate Director, Biotechnology Center, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,1401 West Green Street, Urbana, IL 61801.
4 President, BIOrational Consultants, 3215 Linden Drive, New Brighton 55112
5 Professor of Food Science and Sociology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695.
6 Director, Biotechnology Program, University of California at Davis, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616.
7 Associate Staff Scientist, Life Sciences Research Office, 9650 Rockville Pike, Bethesda 20814.
Manuscript received 15 April 2002.