Monday, July 14, 2014

2004: Consumer knowledge and acceptance of agricultural biotechnology vary

California Agriculture Online:


Results from consumer surveys reveal some basic conclusions about consumer attitudes toward agricultural biotechnology. First, consumers do not agree about whether biotech foods are good or bad. Second, a small group of people strongly opposes them. Third, the majority of consumers are uninformed about the technology and how food is produced. Relatively small but vocal anti-biotechnology activist groups are successful at influencing public opinion because of consumers' lack of knowledge, creating a role for universities and government agencies to provide clear, objective and accessible information.

While education is unlikely to settle the debate about the relative costs and benefits of agricultural biotechnology, it would at least enable consumers to understand the choices they make when they do their food shopping. Education poses a challenge because any educational materials must compete with a multitude of other messages totally unrelated to food or biotechnology. Further, messages about agricultural biotechnology are abundant, some are difficult for the layperson to understand and information presented by different sources is often contradictory. Government agencies and universities can play an important role in providing and disseminating objective and accessible information to consumers about biotechnology and food production.
Far left, Friends of the Earth placed advertisements in support of Oregon's Measure 27, which would have required labeling of genetically engineered foods but did not pass in 2002. Left, activists have staged protests against biotech foods, such as this march in Boston in 2000.

A caution regarding survey results

The survey method has some shortcomings, which serve as a reminder not to read too much into any individual result. To a skeptic, a notable problem in survey results is the degree to which they can be influenced by how questions are worded. Compounding this problem is the fact that the exact wording of questions often is not presented with the results (especially in the popular press), so that it is easy to misinterpret findings or put them in an inappropriate context.
Suppositional wording is a way of asking a question that implies particular assumptions, which in turn affects responses; it has been shown to influence the level of concern expressed by respondents ( see sidebar, page 100 ). In addition, imbedded assumptions can be seen in other types of questions. Information is often provided to respondents along with the questions, and its content and wording can influence responses. In some recent surveys, a definition of biotechnology or genetic engineering was read to respondents. For some respondents, the definition may have been their first exposure to the technology. What they are told can have a pronounced effect on how they answer subsequent questions.
The sensitivity of responses to wording is especially problematic when survey responses are used to infer or predict market behavior. If responses are sensitive to wording, how much can they reveal about choices consumers would make? While it is important to be cautious in interpreting survey responses, when taken together the surveys do tell a fairly consistent story.

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