Posted: November 10, 2001
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Article SummaryInstead of criticizing the public for getting outraged about biotech, this short piece criticizes the industry for ignoring and mishandling the public’s outrage.

Biotech’s bitter fruit

New Scientist, March 27, 1999

WHATEVER the outcome when the dust finally settles over the genetech wars, there will be collateral damage to science, industry and the regulatory system. Everyone working in these areas should (but won’t) blame themselves.

Earlier this month, a citizens’ panel quizzed experts in the Old Parliament House, Canberra. The outcome of this consensus conference was to reinforce findings of earlier research showing the better informed people are about a controversial issue involving science and society, the more likely will be their disquiet.

In 1990, Peter Sandman of Rutgers University popularised this view in his formula for risk communication: “Risk equals Hazard plus Outrage.” He defined “hazard” as how scientists measure “risk,” and “outrage” as a measure of how the public reacts to it. He went on to say that social scientists can often predict the size of public outrage about an issue more accurately than physical scientists can realistically calculate its hazard.

The gene food debate scores extremely high on the outrage scale. This is a response to the public’s discovery that they have involuntarily purchased products that may have involved genetic engineering. Voluntarily accepting a risk, compared with having it thrust upon one, can involve a thousandfold difference in outrage, says Sandman.

Australia’s food industry fought long and hard against labelling food products with ingredients, drained weight, food additives, alcohol content, country of origin and so on, but lost all those battles. However, industry had “no worries” with nutritional labelling because this helps it to sell more products. In fact, it is now pushing for therapeutic value labelling of food. Hypocrisy further increases outrage.

Every day we see separation and labelling in the supermarkets of different varieties and origins of fruits and vegetables. Why not for gene food? And when genetically enhanced corn is producing industrial proteins such as avidin – widely used in pharmacology – separation will be essential. Costing $50 per kilogram compared with $1,000 for material extracted in the conventional way from egg-whites, this “biopharming” will be highly lucrative. We’ll soon have vaccines in bananas, vitamin A in rice, and so on. Separation and labelling should be made the norm – now. But industry argues if everyday chemical analysis cannot distinguish between two products they are “substantially equivalent” and should not need separate labelling. But many shoppers say they want production information certified to show it is organic, halal, or that wine was made from grapes. Consumers want choices based on their ethical framework and personal values, and many resent developments such as the so-called “terminator” genes. Like hybrids, these modifications will render crop seed sterile and thus maintain seed sales, with special hardship in the Third World.

Outrage is fuelled by moral indignation. Indeed, the fight between the industrial/research complex and consumers has all the hallmarks of an ethnic conflict, where each side has indoctrinated its followers with fear and loathing for the other side. And trust is a major factor in determining outrage. Still in Australia, the powerful food industry is lobbying to have all the necessary assessments, from farm to plate, take place in the agricultural department. This overturns the status quo whereby health concerns are ruled on by the health department, environmental effects by the environmental department, and so on. Currently, all these departments will be brought in to pass judgment on each aspect of a problem, each of them trusted by a different sector of the community.

What is the answer? We might expect those with most to gain from a new technology to say how worried they are about any possible collateral damage, no matter how remote. We expect them to say: “We have invested tens of millions in this technology. The country stands to earn squillions. We do worry about all those issues you have brought up and admit we don’t understand all the wider social ramifications of our work, and we’ll willingly discuss matters that concern us all. Give us some good ideas on how they should be tackled. We shall listen carefully to what you are telling us, and spend day and night trying to devise and support mechanisms which decrease your outrage and build your trust.”

Sadly, once mistrust sets in, the world tends to be viewed through conspiracy-tinted glasses. But it is unlikely that industry will blame itself for failure – it is much easier to blame the activists and media and think the answer is better education or management of the public.

Ben Selinger is emeritus professor of chemistry at the Australian National University and author of Chemistry in the Marketplace (Harcourt Brace, 1998).

Copyright © 1999 by New Scientist, RBI Limited
Reproduced by permission of New Scientist

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