Public Perception of Risks

As with any science and technology, biotechnology can bring with it benefits and risks. It is the risks of agricultural biotechnology that have received widespread publicity in the media even though biotechnology has also been applied to health and industrial sectors. Environmental NGOs have been particularly vocal in taking issue with the new technologies derived from or incorporating GMOs. As a consequence, in the public debate biotechnology has become synonymous with GMOs, although they are only one of the many products of biotechnology.

Curiously, biotechnology and GMOs in health-care products now in widespread use (insulin, hepatitis vaccine, medication for cardiovascular disease, etc.) or for industrial purposes such as bioremediation have elicited no such controversy. This can probably be attributed to the lack of benefits to consumers in the first generation of genetically modified (GM) crops. The main focus was on herbicide and insect resistance that benefited farmers, seed producers, and chemical companies. It is expected that the next generation of genetically modified foods will benefit consumers, nutritionally or from taste or storage benefits, and accordingly may be better accepted.

A number of food-related crises in recent years have made consumers particularly sensitive about food safety issues. Health and food safety concerns are again at the forefront in Europe following additional cases of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and the banning throughout the European Union of blood and bone meal in feed for all animals. These crises have not been caused by GMOs, but by the intensification of agriculture and food production, a fact that appears to have escaped public attention. In Europe in particular, demands have been made for informative food labeling so that consumers may, if they wish, avoid genetically modified foods.

The anti-GMO movement reveals profound mistrust of developments in science and technology and of the forces seen to be driving them. Genetically modified crops such as maize, sorghum, cotton, and canola have been widely grown for the last five years, yet no harmful effects on human health or the environment have been detected. That was one of the conclusions of the OECD-sponsored conference held in Edinburg, UK, in 2000. However, it is generally agreed that government and the private sector are responsible for monitoring the long-term effects of GMOs on human health and the environment.

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