A new wave of genetically engineered crops could bring about a revolution in food production to feed a growing world population, but public distrust and a movement to ban the foods threaten to stop the new technology in its tracks, according to research published in Thursday's edition of the journal Science.
In a survey of consumer attitudes, the researchers probed a growing fear of genetically engineered foods, particularly in Europe, where several supermarket chains, responding to public distrust, have pledged to rid their shelves of the first generation of such products.
In contrast, U.S. consumers have generally accepted the altered crops. A majority of the soybeans and a substantial share of the corn planted this year contain genes from other species, such as bacteria.
The difference in attitudes underlies growing trade tensions across the Atlantic. A number of European governments have called for labeling, and the issue could become the center of another food-based trade dispute. Earlier this year, the U.S. said it would impose sanctions on European goods because of a ban on beef from cattle fed hormones.
Why the divergence in attitudes?
Americans are more ignorant of the science, get less news about the issue and are more trusting of government regulators than their European counterparts, conclude researchers at the London School of Economics and London's Science Museum who conducted public opinion surveys in 1996 and 1997 in the U.S. and 17 European countries.
Europeans may see genetically modified food as "menacing" because of a variety of scares in Europe--including a 1996 outbreak among humans of mad cow disease traced to British beef. And they are less likely to trust their countries' regulatory agencies than they are environmental groups, which have led protests against genetically engineered crops.
Americans, however, indicated much confidence in U.S. regulatory bodies that have declared biotech foods safe--84% of respondents said they had at least some confidence in the Food and Drug Administration and 90% in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The researchers also cite cultural differences. A number of scientists said in interviews that Americans are quicker to embrace change in the name of progress and are less wedded to traditional farming.
The findings in Science describe new techniques in biotechnology that allow an increase in the nutritional properties of common foods by taking genes from one species and implanting them in another.
American farmers have already embraced the first wave of products, mostly changes in a single gene, producing plants that contain their own pesticides or survive weedkiller.
Scientists are reporting success in more complicated genetic transformations that alter the quality of the finished food products themselves, boosting the protein content of grains, improving vegetable oil quality and introducing nutrients that may prevent disease. In developing countries, agricultural biotechnology could result in crops that can be grown on marginal-quality land.
With an eye toward what has happened in Europe, the biotechnology industry has gone on the offensive--pointing out the benefits of the genetically engineered crops and rebutting safety issues raised by some critics.
The Biotechnology Industry Organization--the industry's trade and lobbying voice in the U.S.--this week unveiled a 100-page report on the benefits of corn, cotton and potato varieties that contain bacterial genes for natural insecticides. The industry report, prepared by the nonprofit National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, concludes that such crops can reduce the use of conventional pesticides and increase yield per acre.
But results have varied since 1996, when the genetically modified crops were introduced. And some growers and seed producers have been backing away from the genetically engineered seeds because the crops are not accepted in Europe, said Libby Mikesell, a Biotechnology Industry Organization spokeswoman.
Earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman defended the U.S. regulatory review that has led to the approval of about 50 genetically altered plant varieties. Acknowledging growing consumer distrust, however, he announced that he would establish an independent scientific review of biotech plants and genetically modified livestock. Glickman seemed to accept the inevitability of some kind of labeling of genetically modified products, though, a position opposed by the industry.