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Public perceptions of agricultural biotechnologies in Europe

Contract nr: FAIR-CT98-3844
Project nr: 3844
Project type: SE
Starting date: 01/06/1998
Duration: 24 months
Total cost: 943,000 EUR
EC Contribution: 943,000 EUR
Scientific Officer: Maurizio SALVI
Research topic: Plant health
Acronym: PABE

This proposed research aims to investigate the factors which influence public perceptions of the risks associated with genetically modified (GM) foods across European countries. GM foods are an important new field of technological innovation and commercial growth in biotechnology, but there is conflicting evidence of considerable, if ill-defined, public anxiety about what may be involved in such unfamiliar though potentially beneficial new fields.

This research aims to: identify the contents and patterns of background factors which may affect public perceptions (such as views of the scope and responsiveness of the risk-management regulatory system, of the ethical acceptability of gene transfer from animals to plants, or of the industrialisation of food generally); assist a more clear and constructive public articulation of such concerns as may be found, so as to assist democratic robustness in innovation; and to facilate analysis of the European policy implications of whatever variations are found in such risk perceptions factors across the arena studied. These aims correspond fully with the objectives of the FAIR ELSA programme, to understand and respond to public attitudes and diverse viewpoints, to anticipate emerging problems of an ethical, legal and social kind, and to investigate the factors influencing public responses and ethical perspectives.

The research uses qualitative methods (focus groups and interviews) combined with workshops with stakeholders, to identify factors shaping public attitudes to agricultural biotechnology and GM food products. Lay participants were selected according to criteria derived from general risk perceptions research, knowledge of GMO-GM food issues, and from previous national research on public perceptions of GM foods conducted in the UK for Unilever by the main applicant, and in Germany by Partner 4. State-of-the-art research in this field indicated the central importance of trust in shaping public concerns, but also that trust is a multi-dimensional variable which may be influenced by experiencing other issues that are perceived as being related (such as BSE), and by other contextual factors (such as general experience of the accessibility, transparency and scope of the regulatory-advisory process in each country or in the EU as a whole). The research has been exploring these factors and their variations across the partner countries. The aim of the research is to generate fresh insights into the factors which influence public concerns and to explore the means through which better expression of such concerns could be assisted in the regulatory process, to the benefit of democratically robust, sustainable and effective technological choice and innovation.

Current situation/results:
The partners have completed data collection, including interviews with stakeholders about national developments in relation to agricultural biotechnology and focus groups with members of the public. A preliminary analysis of focus group data from the first phase of the project revealed considerable similarity across national contexts in the factors underlying public views. These included, very broadly:

  • A sense of (or lack of) agency or influence over events in this domain
  • Scepticism (and distrust) of key institutions, including government and science
  • Perceived relationships between social need and private interests
  • Perceived speed and controllability of social and technological change
  • Perceived consequences of long-term uncertainties over risks
  • Perceived relationships between food, health and nature/environment
  • Lifestyle orientations, including related food cultures.

The preliminary results were subject to further investigation in the second phase of data collection and, in the final stage of the project, the partners are now refining their analysis of the data. The picture emerging from the analysis challenges many widely held assumptions about public attitudes toward agricultural biotechnology and will have significant implications for policy and practice. The exploration of these implications is being facilitated with a series of interactive national stakeholder workshops and a final European workshop, involving representatives from government, business, NGOs and the research community.


Lancaster University
UK-LA1 4YT Lancaster
Tel.: +44 1524 59 26 55
Fax: +44 1524 84 63 39


  • Louis LEMKOW
    Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona
    Edifici A
    E-08193 Bellaterra
    Tel.: +34 93 581 14 39
    Fax: +34 93 581 16 14

  • Ortwin RENN
    Akademie für Technikfolgenabschaetzung in Baden-Wuerttemberg
    Centre of Technology Assessment in Baden-Wuerttemberg (Public Foundation)
    Industriestrasse 5
    D-705655 Stuttgart
    Tel.: +49 711 906 31 60
    Fax: +49 711 906 31 75

  • Bruna DE MARCHI
    Istituto di Sociologia Internazionale di Gorizia
    Via Mazzini 13
    I-34170 Gorizia
    Tel.: +39 048 153 36 32
    Fax: +39 048 153 20 94

  • Sylvie FAUCHEUX
    Association Universitaire de Recherche Appliquée
    Place de la Gare de Ceinture 2
    F-78210 Saint-Cyr l'école
    Tel.: +33 1 39 25 53 75
    Fax: +33 1 39 25 53 00
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