Consumers Evenly Divided Over Environmental Risks and Benefits of Genetically Modified Food and Biotechnology

Consumers Evenly Divided Over Environmental Risks and Benefits of Genetically Modified Food and Biotechnology

The American public is evenly divided over whether genetically modified food and other agricultural biotechnology products hurt or help the environment when given basic information on risks and benefits, according to a poll released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. The poll, conducted by Zogby International, was released as part of a panel discussion hosted by the Initiative titled “Environmental Savior or Saboteur? Debating the Impacts of Genetic Engineering.”

“Despite a long and often fractious debate about the environmental risks and benefits of biotechnology between critics and supporters, a majority of the American public agrees with neither position,” said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Initiative. “Initially, people tend to feel slightly more strongly about the risks of the technology, but react more positively when additional information is presented to them. Simply put, it looks like the jury is still out.”

Prior to reading a series of informational statements about the possible benefits and risks of biotechnology, respondents nationwide were more likely to say that the risks of biotechnology outweighed the benefits (40 percent to 33 percent), while 19 percent thought the benefits and risks were about the same, and nine percent were unsure. However, after being read a series of questions about specific environmental risks and benefits (without specifically identifying which were risks or benefits), respondents were exactly evenly divided, with 38 percent saying the risks outweigh the benefits and another 38 percent saying the benefits outweigh the risks. An additional 21 percent now said the risks and benefits were about the same, with the number of “don't knows” reduced to 3 percent.

Minorities tended to respond differently than whites: after having been read the statements, whites were significantly more likely to say the benefits (41%) outweighed the risks (32%), whereas Hispanics and African-Americans thought the risks outweighed the benefits both before and after the statements were read. In addition, women tended to weigh the risks are higher than the benefits, both before and after the statements were read.

Consumers overall are also generally unaware of the environmental risks and benefits of genetic engineering, according to the poll. Only 15 percent of respondents had heard “a great deal” about the benefits and 17 percent heard “a great deal” about the risks, with 42 percent hearing “some” about benefits and 43 percent hearing “some” about risks. An additional 32 percent heard “not too much” about benefits and 27 percent heard “not too much” about risks, with the remaining 10 percent hearing nothing about benefits and 13 percent about risks.

Consumers felt the most important potential environmental benefits of genetic engineering are: creating plants to clean up toxic soils (74 percent); reducing soil erosion (73 percent); reducing fertilizer run-off into streams and lakes (72 percent); reducing the amount of water used to grow crops (68 percent); developing disease-resistant varieties of trees that are threatened or endangered (67 percent); reducing the need to log in native forests (63 percent); and reducing the amount of chemical pesticides used (61 percent).

In terms of environmental concerns, consumers ranked the possibility that genetically modified plants, fish, or trees could contaminate ordinary plants, fish and trees not intended to be modified as highest (64 percent), followed by “creating superweeds” (57 percent) and increasing the number of insects that may develop pesticide-resistance (also 57 percent); reducing genetic diversity (49 percent) and changing a plant, fish or tree through biotechnology so that it might harm other species (also 49 percent). Changing the ecosystem ranked lowest of all the risks and benefits listed, at 46 percent.

The list of specific environmental risks on the poll were: drifting genes, creating “superweeds,” increasing pest resistance, affecting non-target organisms, reducing biodiversity, or changing the ecosystem. Benefits listed were: engineering plants to clean up toxic waste, reducing soil erosion, reducing run-off, needing less water to grow crops, saving endangered or threatened species, reducing the need to log in native forests, or reducing pesticide use. Asked to rank these 13 items in terms of personal importance, the environmental benefits scored significantly higher than any of the risks listed, with the exception of the non-target organism issue nationally. However, among Californians, all the benefits outranked the risks.

These poll results were released at a panel moderated by Margaret Warner, senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. The panel, which explored the environmental risks and benefits in the debate over agricultural biotechnology, included: Charles Benbrook, an environmental consultant and the former executive director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture; Martina McGloughlin, Director of the Biotechnology Program at the University of California; Carl Pope, Executive Director, The Sierra Club; and Peter Raven, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and recently named "Hero for the Planet" by Time Magazine.

The poll, a nationwide survey of 1,214 adults and an additional 407 adults in California, was conducted by Zogby International from January 14-18, 2002. The margin of error is +/- 3 percent for the nationwide sample and +/- 5 percent for the California sample.