SOC/BIO: Survey on Canadian attitudes to genengineering

Date: Sat Jan 06 2001 - 07:26:01 MST

>From The Ottawa Citizen,
Tuesday 2 January 2001
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70% oppose cloning
Canadians skeptical about biotech: study
Chris Cobb
The Ottawa Citizen

Canadians are overwhelmingly against cloning animals, and are also deeply
suspicious of genetically modified food and the use of pesticides made from
genetically modified bacteria.

According to a newly released study, Canadians appear to have only sketchy
knowledge of biotechnology, which involves the manipulation of plant, animal
and human life forms.

The study was conducted for Health Canada to test public knowledge and
opinion on various aspects of biotechnology, which is set to expand across
the planet with a speed some say will rival the growth of information

The study will be used to develop federal policy on such things as
bioengineered human prescription drugs, including insulin and antibiotics;
on genetically modified food, including corn and tomatoes; on animal growth
hormones to increase meat and milk production and on animal cloning.

Although Canadians view some aspects of biotechnology with suspicion, the
study confirms other federal reports that most people are willing to take
minor risks if biotechnology can be proved beneficial to humanity --
especially the treatment of disease.

But the majority also send this clear message to government: It's your
responsibility to protect us and before you make any decisions, show us the
scientific proof.

"When it comes to making decisions about the management and control of
biotechnology products," says the study, "a majority of Canadians see
scientific evidence as more crucial than people's concerns and perceptions."

The study, by the research firm Environics, was based on interviews with
1,508 Canadians conducted by telephone last summer. Surveys of that size are
considered accurate, plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of

Most Canadians (63 per cent) feel that government should create the
regulations governing biotechnology and have a structure in place to enforce
the regulations and to safeguard the public. A similar number want
development and management of biotechnology products to be co-ordinated
among several federal departments, and a whopping 90 per cent want
government to consult Canadians.

Respondents were also asked this question: "Biotechnology is the application
of science in the use of living organisms or their products to develop new
products and processes. Would you say you are very familiar, somewhat
familiar, not very familiar, or not at all familiar with biotechnology?"

Better-educated Canadians say they are most familiar with biotechnology, but
if the federal government wants a better-informed public, it clearly has a
lot of work to do. Only five per cent of those interviewed said they were
"very familiar" with the issue, while 62 per cent said they were either "not
very familiar" or "not at all familiar."

The level of familiarity with the subject is slightly lower than it was two
years ago, but the study says this may have more to do with competing public
messages about the risks and benefits of biotechnology.

Canadians who say they have some knowledge of the subject are, however,
likely to be critical of the job the federal government is currently doing
in regulating and developing biotechnology.

Although there is widespread ignorance about biotechnology, Canadians from
all walks of life are adamant in their opposition to animal cloning. Seven
out of 10 respondents said there is little or no benefit in cloning animals
for human consumption, and eight per cent disagreed.

Canadians are skeptical about pesticides manufactured from genetically
modified bacteria, with 18 per cent saying they would provide a great deal
of benefit. They have mixed views on the benefits of genetically modified
crops. Fifty per cent said they would have a significant or moderate
benefit, while the other 50 per cent said the opposite.

Older Canadians (66 or older) hold the most passionate views about
biotechnology and appear motivated by self-interest. The majority in this
group are in favour of bioengineered prescription drugs and developing new
strains of laboratory animals to study human diseases, but they are
overwhelmingly opposed to cloning animals and genetically modifying crops.

Albertans are the most receptive to all aspects of biotechnology, and are
especially in favour of genetically modified food crops. Quebecers are least
supportive of biotechnology in general. Ontarians are generally supportive
of all aspects of biotechnology, other than animal cloning, and people in
the Atlantic provinces feel about the same.

In an earlier study conducted for Industry Canada, 75 per cent were shocked
to learn that three-quarters of ingredients in store-bought food were
genetically modified. Many were angry that this had been done without their
knowledge or consent, and 93 per cent of respondents demanded genetically
modified products be labelled.

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