How Does Science Work?

Risk as Perception

Risk as Science

The Risk Assessment Paradigm

How Foods from Biotech Crops are Evaluated for Human Safety

How Biotech Crops are Evaluated for Environmental Safety in the United States


Risk as Perception Page 2

A substantial amount of information has already been collected about European perceptions of biotechnology. Unfortunately, the information is often contradictory, making generalizations difficult. For example, in one survey the public viewed pharmaceutical production in animals as acceptable, but viewed genetic engineering of animals as unacceptable (Boulter 1997).

Northern Europe (England, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Austria). In general, northwestern European countries have a relatively well-educated public who perceive high risks from biotechnology and raise ethical objections to its use. However, most citizens in these countries accept biotechnology (Zechendorf 1994). The British had an average acceptance and risk perception rate, but the acceptance rate for food applications of genetic engineering was lower. Denmark had the highest perceptions of risk but also had above average acceptance of biotechnology when compared to other European countries.

The German public was strikingly different from most of the other countries. Although the citizens are the most knowledgeable about biotechnology in Europe, they had the second highest perception of risk and lowest support. Generally, the greater the level of knowledge and education, the greater the support for biotechnology (Torgersen and Seifert 1997, Zechendorf 1994). Germany, Denmark, and Austria are exceptions to this pattern. Torgersen and Seifert (1997) suggested that past experiences with Nazi totalitarianism and eugenics may contribute to the low support for biotechnology in Germany and Austria because of the public association of biotechnology with eugenics.

Southern Europe (France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Switzerland). Countries in southern Europe differ from northern Europe with respect to perceptions of risk from biotechnology. The public typically has poorer knowledge of biotechnology, but a lower perception of risk from and a higher acceptance of biotechnology (Zechendorf 1994). The French had high perceptions of risk and about average acceptance when compared to other European countries.

In a 1990 and 1991 survey of 1,127 Spanish adults, most questioned the ethics of biotechnology and believed it could be useful for humanity, but 72% were not supportive of its use for food production (Lujan and Moreno 1994). Italians surveyed were not supportive of plant and human manipulations (Zechendorf 1994). Interestingly, the differences in European opinions between northern and southern countries were observed in Switzerland, which straddles the cultural borderlines. The northern Alemanic population’s acceptance of biotechnology was 49% while the southern Romanic population’s acceptance was 69% (Zechendorf 1994).

Perceptions of Pesticides and Agricultural Biotechnology: Similarities and Differences
Results from recent risk perception studies of pesticides and biotechnology support current understandings about risk perception of technological activities, namely that the factors the public uses to assess risk from all technological activities are different from expert assessment of risk, and that these differences have been established empirically (Slovic 1987). Although the public assesses risks from pesticides and agricultural biotechnology using many similar factors to describe the risks, there are some key differences.

Agricultural Biotechnology
More empirical research on public perceptions of agricultural biotechnology is needed before substantive generalizations can be made. To date, studies seem to indicate that although acceptance of biotechnology is moderate to high, there is less support for agricultural biotechnology than for medical biotechnology. Knowledge of biotechnology is limited, especially with regard to potential benefits. Consequently, this poor understanding is likely to affect initial acceptance of the technology.

Perhaps most important is the perception that agricultural biotechnology, indeed biotechnology in general, represents a large unknown risk. This is reflected in both perceptions of human health and ecological risk and seems to be the dominant perception factor (Hallman 1996, McDaniels et al. 1995, Slovic 1987, Zechendorf 1994). As an unknown risk, biotechnology most likely is seen as a risk that is unknown to science, unknown to those exposed, delayed, and not observable easily. Additionally, biotechnology is perceived as a dread risk. As a dread risk, biotechnology most likely is viewed as a risk that is uncontrollable, globally catastrophic, not equitable, not easily reduced, and increasing.

Agricultural biotechnology and pesticides are perceived as unknown and dread risks. However, perceptions of biotechnology seem to differ greatly from pesticides with regard to ethics, morals, and values. The ethics and morality of the use pesticides are not nearly as disconcerting among the public as they are with the use of biotechnology. Public concerns about the ethics and morality of biotechnology most likely reflect factors such as recent introduction of the technology, ability of the technology to dramatically change the genetics of an organism, lack of societal and scientific knowledge about the consequences of deploying the technology, seemingly unnatural methods used, and fear of humans “playing God” (Boulter 1997).

Hopefully, you have seen that, in one sense, risk is a function of perception. Therefore, risk is not absolute, but rather it is a value judgment varying from person to person. Like all activities and technologies, people perceive risks from agricultural biotechnology differently. Further, science-based assessments of risk from biotechnology differ from perception-based perceptions of risk.

References and Further Reading

Risk as Science
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