Can someone explain how the multibillion dollar biotech industry is being so soundly trounced in the arena of public opinion?
>From The Times,
September 8 1999 SCIENCE BRIEFING
An exclusive poll suggests scientists are losing to pressure groups in the battle for public support. Anjana Ahuja reports
Progress, or crimes against nature?
Sunday sees the start of Britain's biggest science festival, the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science BAAS). Held at Sheffield University, it should be a celebration of scientific achievement with lectures and demonstrations designed for a public that is becoming ever more curious about technological advances.
But can scientists afford to be triumphalist? The furore over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), especially when they began creeping quietly on to supermarket shelves, was a public relations disaster and engendered a deep suspicion of science and its practitioners. So it is no wonder that a MORI poll commissioned by Novartis, a leading company in the testing of GM crops, shows widespread opposition to such technology. Among 991 respondents, 62 per cent opposed the genetic modification of plants for crops. The results will be debated at a seminar to round off the BAAS meeting.
Opposition was even more widespread to the cloning of animals (74 per cent) and to the genetic modification of animals for medical research (71 per cent). However, when people were presented with the hypothesis that without these practices, a cure for Alzheimer's would not be possible, 15 per cent changed their minds on the genetic modification of crops. To Bill Fullagar, the president of Novartis UK, this shows a worrying breakdown of communication between scientists and the public.
"The results are unsurprising," Fullagar says. "Very little about the potential benefits of scientific research has been discussed in the press. Instead, with GM crops, for example, we are riding on a tide of emotion and fear But once you relate technology to the benefits, then in intelligent people you get a shift of opinion.
"If you say you are testing GM crops, people think only of the risk. But if you say 'I'm trying to produce a plant that has a minor genetic variation and can be grown using fewer pesticides so there is less contamination of ground-water', they get interested.
"To look at your local supermarket, you would think there was no problem with food supply. But in two or three decades there will be eight billion people on this planet instead of six billion. How are we going to feed them? I doubt if spraying pesticides is the answer. A very real answer is GM foods, and we have to argue that case through." Novartis, along with giants such as Monsanto, has a vested interest in highlighting the benevolent side of research, as Fullagar acknowledges: "We survive or disappear according to our ability to bring useful products to market. But the public has not been given a fair chance to make its mind up on these issues. So far it has been a dialogue of the deaf, with everybody shouting and nobody listening. If people don't want our science, all well and good. But let them be informed."
One unexpected finding of the poll is that, offered the prospect of nutritionally improved food that tastes and costs the same as food today, only 45 per cent of people would welcome it. Yet millions, perhaps billions, of pounds are spent each year on developing "nutraceuticals" - foods with supposed added health benefits. This, Fullagar says, could be because of a backlash against people being told what to eat, or against food being tampered with, which would tally with the burgeoning demand for organic food.
The poll also exposes what Fullagar labels "risk aversion" - governments, politicians and regulatory authorities being scared away from funding or approving controversial studies because of the threat of a public outcry. "Personally speaking, I think aversion to risk is a serious threat to science," he says. "People want zero risk but that means society stagnates instead of progressing. What happens if you don't get permission for scientific studies here? You go to North America, where they do give permission. So scientists leave and this translates into a loss of wealth."
The view that people cannot deal with risk is rubbished by the Rev Dr Michael Reiss, a bioethicist at Cambridge University and a part-time priest, who will take part in the seminar next week. "Most people handle risk extremely well," he asserts. "They are good at weighing up the benefits against the risks. For example, they are not scared off using mobile phones by Panorama programmes because their lives are made so much easier by having mobile phones." Reiss supports studies into GM crops but is sceptical about much animal testing, and is totally against testing on primates because of the debate about their similarity to human beings. "I found the survey results extremely encouraging," he says. "Here is a group of sensible people who are listening to the debates, who are sceptical of things such as animal testing unless the benefits are substantial. For example, people were divided on the issue of xenotransplantation [transplanting animal organs into human beings]. Here is a technique that could save thousands of lives but there is a danger that we could get viruses being transferred from pigs to people. After HIV and BSE, people are right to see this as a real worry."
However, Reiss does feel that campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (he is a member of the latter) have shouted too loudly in the debate. "GM crops are the greenest thing to hit agriculture," he says, "yet pressure groups have decided that they are wrong, full stop.
"To vandalise GM crops is nothing more than unnecessary destruction."
WEBSITE: details of the seminar and festival can be found at www.britassoc.org.uk/festival