March 2, 2006

Media Changes Perceptions of Genetically Engineered Crops

Print More

About 60 percent of food products found on U.S. shelves contain some form of genetically engineered crop. Yet, a recent study on the public’s attitude toward agricultural biotechnology by Prof. James Shanahan, communication, and John Besley grad determined Americans have yet to reach a consensus as to how they feel about consuming these genetically altered products.

The study was based on data collected by Cornell’s Survey Research Institute and took place throughout 2003, 2004 and 2005. Different surveys were administered in New York and nationwide. Overall, the data shows that people are distributed fairly evenly in their attitudes toward agricultural biotechnology, but distrust has grown in recent years.

“The goal was to find out how media coverage relates to perceptions of biotechnology,” Shanahan said.

He explained that much of his other research has focused on how media coverage can affect public opinion on scientific issues, such as climate change.

“I think that all scientific issues go through cycles of media attention, and once the cycle is over, they sort of drop out,” Shanahan said.

“When we were doing our surveys, coverage of agricultural biotechnology was declining, coverage probably reached its peak in 2001,” Besley said. “The results show that support decreased as media attention decreased.”

He added that media coverage on agricultural biotechnology tends to be quite accurate.

“The fact that opinions about agricultural biotechnology continue to change suggests that people haven’t made up their minds yet,” Besley said. “There is no single factor that determines what people think about agricultural biotechnology.”

The study determined that certain factors tend to impact opinions toward the technology, including awareness, trust in institutions and media coverage. For example, people with high trust in institutions tended to see low risk in consuming genetically engineered products.

“People who are aware of technology and what it can do tend to be more supportive,” Shanahan said.

Besley said that people who read newspapers and watch more television tend to be more supportive of this type of new technology.

Prof. Tim Setter, crop and soil science, explained that biotechnology is currently being used to help farmers increase crop yield, but that there is hope that the same technology can be used to make crops healthier or even hypoallergenic.

“A lot of the implementations of technology so far have been useful to farmers as opposed to things general consumers would value. As those products come onto the market, maybe there will be a shift in a more positive direction,” said Setter.

Setter explained that there are two main sources for fears of genetically engineered food products. He said that the first cause for concern is that the genes could affect other plants in the environment in which they are introduced and thus impact the entire ecosystem.

The second is that the genes could have unintended results on consumer health. Setter emphasized that these impacts can be tested for, and, because of the nature of the genes being added, they are broken up in the stomach. Therefore, they cannot cause damage past that point, unlike the pesticides that many of these genetically altered crops are making obsolete. For this reason he said that this source of concern is the less significant of the two.

“In the fullness of time when more studies have been done and we get a more complete picture