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Press Release - Brussels, 27 April 2000

Questions and expectations on biosciences -Commission to promote debate

Commission appoints 11 top experts and publishes a survey of public opinion



Key findings from the fourth Eurobarometer survey demonstrate a significant decrease in public trust towards all sources of biotechnology information. In particular trust in environmental protection organisations has declined by 10 % since 1996 and 16 % since their peak in 1993; consumer organisations remain the most trusted source, seen as trustworthy by over half the population, just ahead of the medical profession.

Eurobarometer 52.1 sampled responses, in the form of an opinion poll, from approximately 16,000 persons, averaging 1000 from each of the 15 Member States. It provides a useful gauge on both current public opinion, and how this has changed when compared to the previous surveys of 1991, 1993, and 1996. The 1999 survey was the most detailed yet. The main conclusions, comparisons with previous surveys and the differences between Member States are detailed below.


1 From amongst 9 technologies presented to respondents, biotechnology and genetic engineering (both ranking just above nuclear energy) are still regarded as having a positive effect on life in the future. However when compared to 1996, the number of persons responding positively to biotechnology and genetic engineering has decreased by 5 and 6 % respectively.

2. When Europeans think about biotechnology, what first springs to mind for nearly half of them (43%) is the cloning of animals and humans. That figure is 80-90 % in Italy, Sweden and Denmark dropping to one in six (15-16%) in Portugal and the UK. One third think of scientific research, health and technological development, one quarter about GM foods, but only one in twelve about the environment. Unfortunately for biotech, it's the cloning that elicits negative vibes whereas research, health and environment are viewed positively.

3 When asked whether they had previously heard of seven different applications of modern biotechnology, for Europeans the most heard about applications were food (73%), crops (63%), followed by genetic testing (59%), animal cloning (58%), cloning human cells (54%), medicines (50%) and bio-remediation (34%).

4 Support for GM crops has declined since 1996. However, support for medical applications of modern biotechnology in the areas of pharmaceuticals and genetic testing remains high, and does not appear to have been affected by the controversies over GM crops and foods. Even the potentially controversial use of cloning techniques for human cells and tissues attracts moderate support. Hence the lower expectations for the future regarding biotechnology is as a result of attitudes towards particular applications and not to gene technology as a whole.

5 Food production is regarded as that application of biotechnology carrying the greatest risk, whereas the detection of diseases the least.

6 The majority of respondents do not give significant support to genetically modified food, with two thirds not willing to buy GM fruit even if it has a better taste and over half willing to pay more for non GM food. Only 22 % would be willing to buy cooking oil containing a little genetically modified soya with 62 % rejecting this possibility. Again, only 33 % of those interviewed would be happy to eat sugar from GM sugar cane if all traces of genetic modification were eliminated and only 19 % would be willing to eat the eggs of hens fed on GM maize.

7 A significant proportion of respondents (72%) express a desire and wish to know more about the advantages/disadvantages of biotechnology. This compares to 19 % who are not and 9 % who do not know.

8 The majority of respondents view the media (59 %), consumers organisations (70 %) and environmental protection organisations (58 %) reporting on biotechnology, as doing a good job.

9 Less than half (45 %) of respondents feel their governments regulate biotechnology well enough, compared to 29 % who feel the opposite and 26 % who are not sure.

10 Respondents have the greatest confidence in consumer organisations (26 %), followed by the medical (24 %) and environmental protection organisations (14 %). Only 3 % of Europeans choose national government authorities as their most trusted source of information. Companies and political parties are at the bottom of the list.

11 Notwithstanding widespread controversy and increasing press coverage in many European countries, when asked "before today have you ever talked about modern biotechnology with anyone?" only 47% of Europeans said "yes" - exactly the same percentage as in 1996. The countries with the greatest increase in people talking about biotechnology are Greece (+8.7%), Britain (+7.4%) and France (+4.9%). Modern biotechnology is not one of the more captivating topics of conversation for many Europeans, and is no more so now than in 1996.



1 In general terms respondents' awareness and knowledge of biotechnology, as well as the degree to which they discuss the subject, does not appear to have increased when compared to previous surveys. Moreover their understanding of some of the very basic issues is surprisingly limited, which is exemplified by the equal percentage (35%) of persons responding true and false to the statement 'ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do'. The best score on this question was by the Dutch (who grow many tomatoes), of whom 60 % correctly identified the statement as false, 30 % sheltered behind a "don't know" response and 10 % got it wrong.

2 Europeans regard food production, genetic testing, production of vaccines and pest resistance as significantly less morally acceptable and significantly less useful as biotechnological applications than in 1996.

3 Since 1996 public trust has decreased significantly for all sources of biotechnology information, most significantly for environmental protection organisations and universities, each of which has lost the confidence of 10 % of the population.



1 Significant differences exist between levels of understanding, knowledge and awareness of biotechnology in different Member States. For example the Nordic countries tend to give a higher percentage of correct responses to a set of biotechnology related questions than do Greece, Germany or France.

2 Luxembourg and France are more concerned with the risks of biotechnology, whereas Finland and Greece less so.

3 Spain regards the applications of biotechnology as useful, morally acceptable, and worth encouraging, whereas Greece holds the opposite view.

4 The roles of the media and consumer organisations are viewed positively by the Netherlands, Finland and Greece but not so by the UK, Italy and Sweden.

It should be noted that there are significant differences in the responses due to socio- demographic variables such as age, income and degree of education.

Fuller details are given in the published report, and data tapes will be placed in public repositories in Europe and the United States.

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PRESS RELEASE OF 27.04.2000 | 02.05.2000