Survey Finds Deep Polarization
over Frankenfoods

The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research
The Public Perspective
May, 2002 / June, 2002

Hidden Differences

BY: Susanna Hornig Priest; Susanna Hornig Priest is associate professor
of journalism, Texas A&M University

Biotechnology in food and agriculture

Few Americans are neutral in their views on biotechnology. Surveys have
shown that majorities consistently favor the use of genetic engineering in
agriculture and food production. Support is even stronger for many medical
applications. But a large proportion -- as much as one-third -- is not
convinced these technologies are benign.

In the spring of 2000, the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M
University conducted a study to probe United States opinion on the use of
biotechnology-based processes in agriculture and food production. The work
was carried out in cooperation with the International Research Group on
Biotechnology and the Public, coordinated by George Gaskell at the London
School of Economics. The results indicated that a majority (about 53%) of
the US population believed that, in general, genetic engineering would
improve the quality of life in the next 20 years.

But a substantial minority (about 30%) said this technology would make
things worse. Unusually consistent with these results were those of another
national telephone survey done about a year later by the Gallup
Organization. In July 2001, Gallup found that 53% of the US population did
not believe foods produced using biotechnology posed a serious health
hazard, while 30% did. Context is important for understanding these data.
Despite widespread evidence of reservations, biotechnology-related worries
did not rank very highly on the list of all food-related concerns for
respondents to the Texas A&M study. While 27% said they were very concerned
about genetically engineered foods or biotechnology, this was the smallest
percentage for any of eight food safety items tested. Nevertheless, the
reservations expressed by this minority pose a substantial challenge for the
food and agriculture industries.

And while biotechnology may have been the least controversial food safety
item in our study, it was among the most controversial technologies overall.
The 53% of respondents who were optimistic about the impact of genetic
engineering on the quality of life comprised a far smaller majority than the
88% who felt solar energy would improve our way of life over the next 20
years. Eighty-eight percent felt the same way about computers and
information technology, 82% about telecommunications, 72% about the
internet, and 62% about space exploration. Only nuclear energy, with 43%,
drew a less positive response than genetic engineering, according to this

Further, those with reservations about biotechnology appeared to be spread
across the political and religious spectrums rather than representing a
single group (see Figure 1). Biotechnology pessimists were a little more
likely to be nuclear energy pessimists, but overall they did not seem to be
the same group of people; resistance should not, in other words, be ascribed
to a Luddite "fringe" of political or religious extremists from either the
right or the left.

Figure 1

Biotech Qualms by Subgroup

Science and technology change the way we live. I am going to read out a list
of areas in which new technologies are currently developing. For each of
these areas, do you think it will improve our way of life in the next 20
years, will have no effect, or will make things worse? . . . Genetic


The term "biotechnology" encompasses a broad variety of techniques, some
involving genetic manipulation and some not. Sixty percent of our
respondents definitely agreed or tended to agree that food production
biotechnology should be encouraged; for crop biotechnology (e.g.,
engineering for pest resistance) the comparable number was 71%. As has been
observed in other studies, support for medical applications was higher, with
79% wanting to encourage the use of engineered bacteria for medicine
production and a surprising 84% in favor of encouraging genetic testing.
Presumably, medical applications have more support because, in a society in
which food is abundant, a greater need is seen for medical than for food
applications. However, only 51% of our respondents wanted to encourage
cloning an animal "such as a sheep" whose milk might contain useful drugs.
And only 55% would encourage putting human genes into animals to produce
organs for transplant. These responses certainly suggest a more complex
picture in which support depends more on the specific application than on
whether the technology is used for food or medical purposes.
Why has the US public been portrayed as homogeneously pro-bio-technology?
Not surprising, the attention of the biotechnology industry seems to have
focused on consistent indications of majority support for the use of its
technologies in food and agriculture. This emphasis may have helped mask the
widespread existence of concerns about risks -- even among some who foresee
significant benefits.

Another striking finding of our study was the degree of polarization:
relatively few Americans felt neutral about many issues associated with
biotechnology across a broad range of applications, including food
biotechnology. This may also have been masked by researchers' habitual focus
on simple majority opinion rather than its distribution.
For example, 37% of our respondents moderately or strongly agreed that the
risks associated with genetically modified or "GM" food were acceptable,
even more -- 43% -- moderately disagreed or strongly disagreed with the
question asked in this form. But just 7% said they neither agreed nor
disagreed. Thirteen percent said don't know or refused to answer.
Similarly, 47% moderately or strongly agreed that only traditional breeding
methods should be used in food production while 37% moderately or strongly
disagreed, with only 7% remaining neutral (9% don't knows or refusals).
Forty-five percent moderately or strongly agreed that "even if GM food has
benefits, it is fundamentally against nature;" 42% moderately or strongly
disagreed, but only 5% were neutral (8% don't knows or refusals).
Despite widespread concerns, 63% moderately or strongly agreed that
genetically modified food would bring benefits to a lot of people, while 20%
moderately or strongly disagreed and 8% were neutral (10% don't knows or
refusals). In other words, it appears there is broad concern about possible
risks, but even broader recognition of the potential benefits of genetically
modified foods. Under such circumstances, different respondents undoubtedly
weighed the costs and benefits differently.

In addition, change that has occurred in the US since a comparable
(unpublished) study was conducted in 1997 by Jon Miller, now Director of the
Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University, has been
largely in the direction of further polarization rather than a shift toward
either the positive or the negative pole. While 12% of Miller's respondents
thought genetic engineering would have no effect within 20 years, only 5%
thought so in 2000.

These results suggest a public opinion climate in which overall majority
support has tended to marginalize concerns that are actually broadly shared.
When individuals believe themselves to be in a minority, they are probably
less likely to express their opinions for fear of damage to how others see
them in the form of disapproval or even ostracism. This is the chief
assertion of Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann's influential "spiral of silence"
theory and might be thought of as a societal-level variation on the older
"groupthink" idea that describes conformity pressures on individuals
interacting in small groups.

While spiral of silence research since the initial development of this
theory has produced mixed empirical results, in part because of
methodological challenges associated with demonstrating its operation in
particular "real world" circumstances, it remains a very useful concept for
purposes of thinking about the dynamics of how public opinion works in a
pluralistic democracy.

Individuals are constantly situating themselves in relation to what they see
as the probable range and mode of the public opinion distribution, as well
as the distribution within reference groups important to them. While they
are unlikely to change opinions they believe to be in the minority as a
result of this process, their willingness to speak out -- and quite possibly
their willingness to take public action, which of course requires speaking
out -- can certainly be affected.

This can easily lead to the kind of opinion climate in which a public
consensus appears to exist when it does not. But the opinions do not
necessarily go away; spiral of silence is a theory about opinion expression,
not opinion formation.

Strong reactions to developments in areas like food biotechnology, for which
a solid majority has appeared to be supportive, can give the impression that
public opinion is volatile or fickle, and easily influenced by relatively
minor matters -- situations that appear to carry little substantiated
consumer health risk. But these reactions do not always mean that opinion
has suddenly changed. Rather, it may be more useful to think of this as a
process by which concerns and reservations that were not previously
articulated (or in some cases even fully formulated) in popular thinking
suddenly find a means of focus and expression.

Hearing others express reservations, individuals who might previously have
thought of themselves as relatively isolated in their "back of the mind"
concerns are suddenly reinforced in their opinions by discovering the
existence of others like themselves. Nagging doubts become salient.
Dissenters discover compatriots. But the chain reaction that results need
not always be interpreted as springing from a sudden shift in public opinion
-- only in its expression.

Food biotechnology is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Public
outcries in response to events such as the appearance in taco shells of
genetically modified corn unapproved for human consumption, proposals to
allow genetic food products to be officially labeled "organic," or the use
of genetically engineered growth hormone to boost dairy cow production seem
to have startled industry and agriculture alike. They appear to have sprung
out of nowhere.

In fact, they have sprung from a population increasingly aware of genetic
engineering, and in many cases, increasingly wary. Even industry figures
show drops over five years in consumer confidence that biotechnology will
provide benefits within five years to themselves or their families, with
International Food Information Council figures indicating 59% agreement in
May of 2000 (very close to the time of our survey, and with very comparable
results) compared to 78% in 1997.

Overall, Americans lean toward optimism regarding biotechnology, but a
substantial minority has concerns. This minority is not confined to a single
demographic group but crosses religious, political, and educational lines.
Even though fears of the safety of engineered foods are not high in
comparison to other food issues, moral concerns are common. It seems safe to
predict that controversy in this area is unlikely to go away any time soon.

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