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Do New Zealanders accept biotechnology?

Biotechnology is headline news. In New Zealand, public debate has been heated concerning genetically modified (GM) corn, cloned sheep and xenotransplantation. Researchers from Lincoln University found out how we make our decisions about the acceptability of biotechnology.

Defining biotechnology

The researchers defined biotechnology as the use of living organisms to make products and solve problems. This is based on the New Zealand Ministry of Research, Science and Technology definition of biotechnology as a “broad term for a group of technologies that are based on applying biological processes. It involves the use of living things or their derivatives to solve problems and make products.”

Biotechnology in the New Zealand media

Several issues discussed in the media have had a major impact on peoples’ ideas about biotechnology. The ones that were particularly relevant to this research were the use of DDT on New Zealand farms and the impact that this had on the meat industry, Dolly the sheep, sheep cloning and transgenic sheep, genetically modified corn, “toad genes” in potatoes, stem cell research, the Kyoto protocol, methane emissions, and the FART tax. Participants also thought that issues such as cervical cancer screening, the Cartwright Report, and the storage of hearts at Greenlane hospital were important, with media coverage highlighting issues of informed consent. As a result of this high media exposure, most people were aware of biotechnology-related issues but did not feel they knew very much about them.

Picking on five examples

For this study, researchers chose to explore public acceptance of five examples of biotechnology that have either been recently introduced, exist under controlled conditions, or are in the early stages of experimentation.

Participants ranked the acceptability of each example on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being the most acceptable and 5 being the least acceptable. These rankings were based on their prior knowledge of and feelings towards biotechnology. Some participants had difficulty rating the acceptance of the examples because they felt that they didn’t know enough and that they were “incompetent.”

Get information sheets:

Public acceptance of using genetically modified bacteria to reduce methane emissions of sheep
Public acceptance of throat lozenges loaded with bacteria
Public acceptance of genetic modification to improve disease resistance in potatoes
Embryonic stem cells and Alzheimer’s disease
Public acceptance of bioremediation to address New Zealand’s DDT problem

The acceptability of biotechnology

Participants in this study generally thought that biotechnology was more acceptable if:

  • it benefits society and not just business
  • the perceived benefits outweigh the perceived risks
  • the risk is managed by an independent, unbiased body
  • the potential for creating a new problem seems minor (there was concern that the GM potato and the GM bacteria would not be containable if things went wrong)
  • people can choose whether they use the biotechnology or not (the lozenge was well accepted because individual consumers were able to choose if they wanted to buy it or not)
  • it does not seem to involve “interfering with nature” (using embryonic stem cells was seen to be a major interference with nature)
  • it seems to be simple (genetically modifying a potato with a synthetic toad-gene was seen to be a complex process and was more likely to be deemed unacceptable)
  • trustworthy information is accessible; the perception of trustworthiness seems to increase if scientists acknowledge the risks and the plans they have in the target of the biotechnology had fewer emotional ties (manipulating something they are not particularly attached to, like a potato, seems to be more acceptable)
  • it provides a practical solution which is cost effective and less time consuming than the alternatives.

Considerations that made biotechnology less acceptable included:

  • if it was unjust (some people thought that it was unjust to manipulate sheep to solve a problem created by humans and industry)
  • if they felt that they would have to pay for it
  • if it would lead to exploitation of a group without power (there was particular concern about stem cell treatment leading to embryo farming; two people were also very concerned that the sheep had no way to voice its opinion of reducing its methane emissions – “Poor old sheep can’t talk for itself” said one of them)

The biotechnology industry – helpful or harmful?

A large factor affecting people judgements about the acceptability of specific examples of biotechnology was the amount of trust they had in the biotechnology companies. People placed only limited trust in these companies because they felt that only decisions were announced, not how, why or the possible consequences. They also felt that scientists often do not acknowledge that anticipated harms or benefits are in fact only predictions, not facts.

Many suggested that profits are the force driving biotechnology companies, rather than social responsibility. There was a fear that regulations were not adhered to by business people, and that regulations might be unrealistic.

The information that people would like from biotechnology companies includes the reasons for using biotechnology, analysis of the benefits and who benefits, the alternatives (now and in the future), the regulations and regulatory bodies (and the enforcement of the regulations), what risks and consequences have been assessed and who by, how consumers will be kept informed, and what will happen if things go wrong.

How was this information collected?

11 focus groups of 10-12 people from around New Zealand participated in this study. First, each participant completed a short written survey asking for their personal acceptance of the five examples. The discussion was based on these responses. Very little background information was given in order to draw out people’s prior knowledge and find out what information they wanted in order to be able to make more confident decisions. Particularly Māori perspectives were considered in a separate study.

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