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RESEARCH

Quality of Life Programme

Eurobarometer 52.1 - The Europeans and Biotechnology

Approach

In each country, questions were put to a representative sample of the national population over 15 years of age. In all, 16,082 people were surveyed, that is, an average of around 1000 people per country except for Germany (2000: 1000 in the new Lšnder and 1000 in the old Lšnder), the United Kingdom (1300: 1000 in Great Britain and 300 in Northern Ireland) and Luxembourg (600). The figures given in this report for the European Union as a whole are a weighted average of the national figures. For each country, the weighting used is the proportion of the national population over 15 years of age in relation to the Community population over 15 years of age. The survey also includes sociodemographic analysis and comparison to previous Eurobarometer surveys made in 1991, 1993 and 1996.

Some highlights from the 1999 survey

Europeans feel poorly informed but are willing to learn about biotechnology. When asked to agree/disagree with the statement "I feel adequately informed on biotechnology", only 11% of respondents (13% of men, 9% of women) agreed, whilst 81% disagreed and 9% "do not know" (DNK). However, 72% of those interviewed agreed that they "would take time to read articles or watch television programmes on the advantages and disadvantages of the advances in biotechnology", compared to 19% who "mostly disagree" and only 9% DNK.

Their level of knowledge is low

In spite of the greater prominence of the Genome project and GM foods in the media and in public debates, the public's understanding of some basic biotechnology issues is surprisingly limited. Some 35% of Europeans agree to the statement, "ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do" while 30% DNK, so only 35% appear to realise that all tomatoes contain genes. There are also big differences between countries. For instance, 41% of Germans and 40% of the French believe the statement to be true compared to the Dutch, of whom only 10% think it is true and 60% recognise that it is false.

Who do you trust ?

Consumer organisations are regarded as trustworthy by most Europeans (55%), just ahead of the medical profession (53%) and environmental protection organisations (45%) - down 11% since 1996 - but well ahead of universities (26%)-down 9 %, animal protection organisations (25%), television and newspapers (20%), international institutions (17%), national public authorities (15%), farmers' associations (15%) and religious organisations (9%).

Europeans are not technophobes but are not enthusiastic about biotechnology.

While a majority of Europeans continue to think that technologies such as solar energy, information technology, telecommunications and the internet "will improve our way of life in the next 20 years", 41% think this of biotechnology - a fall of 5% since 1996. Only nuclear power, at 26%, attracts less confidence. The highest level of optimism about biotechnology is Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, while the lowest is in Greece, the UK and Italy.

Support for different applications of biotechnology varies

Seven applications of biotechnology were submitted to the judgement of Europeans. They are perceived quite differently. For instance, there is clear agreement that it is morally acceptable to use genetic tests to detect inherited diseases, to develop GM bacteria to clean pollution and to introduce human genes in bacteria to produce medicine or vaccines. There is a more limited acceptance of cloning human cells or tissue to help a patient or to transfer plant genes to other plants to obtain resistance to insects. Two other applications are considered just below the mid-point: the use of biotechnology in food production to improve taste or nutritional content and the cloning of animals, even for medical applications. Overall support for these seven applications is strongest is Spain and weakest in Greece.

For or against biotechnology ?

Asked whether they "would sign a petition against biotechnology", 39% are more likely to agree, compared to 38% who are more likely to disagree, with a higher DNK rate than for the other statements (23%). There are significant differences across the EU: 66% mostly agree in Greece, 51% in Austria, 46% in France and 45% in former West Germany. However, the majority is likely to disagree in the Netherlands (51%), followed by Sweden (50%), Denmark and Finland (47% each).

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Conference Genetics and the future of Europe | 17.10.2000

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