Electronic Journal of Biotechnology
versión On-line ISSN 0717-3458
Electron. J. Biotechnol. v.10 n.2 Valparaíso abr. 2007
Strategic approaches to informing the public about biotechnology in
Patricia L. Traynor
Financial support: This work has been supported by OAS Project Number AE-192-4:
Keywords: biotechnology, GMOs, public perception.
The benefits of today's biotechnology products are not evident to consumers. The public will accept biotechnology only when individuals decide for themselves that biotec products will contribute to their personal well-being. To make such a decision, people will need greater awareness and understanding of how biotechnology will affect the environment, human health, local and national economies, and the well-being of society. A low level of awareness and understanding about biotechnology is characteristic of Latin America and the
In order to improve the understanding of the biotechnology and their human applications, a strategic plan for public communications is required. Specific objectives for this initiative may include: (1) to make evident to decision makers that modern biotechnology can be an effective tool for increasing agricultural productivity, and thereby economic growth, without imposing unacceptable risk to the environment or human and animal health; (2) to enable members of the public to make informed decisions about appropriate uses of biotechnology by providing accurate information about benefits, risks and impacts; or (3) to incorporate modern biotechnology into science curricula for secondary schools, university and college students, and agriculture extension officers.
A variety of specialized expertise, including communication specialists, technical writers, graphic artists and illustrators to design information materials and conduct training is needed to implement this. Ideally, members bring expertise in biotechnology and biosafety, public communications and project management. The plan will need to identify scientists and technical experts who can provide expertise in science writing for general audiences, advertising, graphic arts, public opinion polling and media communications. These people can provide basic information about the techniques of modern biotechnology; the products now available and those being developed; what is known about the nature, probability and consequences of potential risks. Governments, industry, universities and media must play an important role to improve public perception about biotechnology, this is a requirement to develop biotechnology in the Region.
The products of modern biotechnology, most notably genetically engineered agricultural crops and foods derived from them, are becoming increasingly common in Latin America and the
Compared with the rapid rate of farmer adoption, however, public acceptance of genetic engineering technology as applied to agriculture, and especially GM foods, lags behind. While acceptance of applications in medicine and health or environmental remediation tends to be somewhat higher, the public has yet to embrace modern biotechnology (Gil et al. 2000). Exaggerated claims, misperceptions, inaccurate and sometimes false information, over-simplification, lack of awareness, lack of transparency, and lack of certainty cloud the public debate over the use of modern biotechnology. Most importantly, the benefits of today's biotechnology products are not evident to consumers.
A low level of awareness and understanding about biotechnology is characteristic of developing and developed countries alike (Finucane and Holup, 2005; Pidgeon et al. 2005; Purchase, 2005). In Latin America and the
The remedy to confusion, misunderstanding and ignorance is information-accurate, meaningful and useful information that will increase people's awareness and understanding of modern biotechnology. Such knowledge enables people to make better informed decisions as to how, when and where biotechnology should be used.
The government of
In 2005-2006, 65% of the total maize crop was genetically engineered for insect resistance and another 3% was herbicide tolerant. Fully 99% of the soybean crop was engineered for herbicide tolerance; estimates for the percentage of cotton that was GM are not yet available. Additional crops and traits are being developed. Field trials have been conducted on alfalfa, cotton, maize, potato, soybean, sugar beet, sunflower, tomato and wheat. Lab experiments have been undertaken on alfalfa, barley, potato and sugar cane.
In 2003/2004, GM soybean varieties were officially approved in
Field trials have been conducted on 27 other crops, including virus resistant common bean, papaya, potato, tobacco, sugarcane and tomato; herbicide tolerant soybean, common bean, cotton, maize, rice, and sugarcane; insect resistant (Bt) cotton, maize, soybean and sugarcane. Some maize, cotton and sugarcane varieties are engineered with multiple traits. With 9.4 million hectares planted in 2005,
Since the first field trials for GM seed production in 1992,
Public and private biotech investment is in the range of US$ 50 million a year. Plant biotech research is underway in government and academic institutions, as well as over 30 private sector companies. Laboratory studies are being conducted on genetically engineered fungus resistant apple, grape, and garlic, virus resistant melon, potato and tomato, modified ripening stone fruits, and tomato and tobacco engineered with various new traits.
As of 2005,
Research conducted under conditions of confinement-in greenhouses or small-scale field trials-is proceeding on numerous fronts. Transgenic roses and carnations exhibiting modified flower colour are approved for greenhouse studies. Confined studies have been approved for Brachiaria grass resistant to salivazo (Aeneolamia sp, an insect pest that attack sugar cane and tropical grass), rice resistant to white leaf virus, and cassava resistant to stem borer. In addition, small scale field studies for sugar cane resistant to yellow leaves virus, as well as for cassava altered production of cytokines, amylopectin and cyanide have been approved.
Confined research on species other than plants also has been approved. Projects include studies on silk worms genetically engineered to produce human albumin, and DNA vaccines against ticks and the viral pathogen that causes foot and mouth disease in livestock. Risk assessment studies are being done for virus vector vaccines against avian laryngotracheitis and Micoplasma gallicepticum.
In two of
Officially, no GM crops are grown in
Students at the University San Francisco in
A controversial issue in
Inadequate information is the most often cited impediment to the public's awareness and understanding of modern biotechnology. To complicate matters, certain basic facts seem to have been lost in the controversy, allowing misleading ideas to persist. In the context of providing information about biotechnology, communicators must highlight such facts as:
Food and environmental safety, labelling, and freedom to choose non-GM foods are major consumer issues that must be addressed wherever transgenic food products are marketed.
Communications about GM products, therefore, must be explicit in explaining how they will benefit individuals and society.
Whether the information being shared is complex or simple, and the audience internal or external, effective communication is governed by a remarkably simple guiding principle: To achieve the desired objective, the communicator must deliver the right information to the right audience. As noted by Massey (personal communication, 2004), a number of operational steps follow logically and sequentially from this principle, the first being to define the objective as precisely as possible. The nature and details of the objective determine the audience; the interests and character of the audience guide the shaping of the information, its packaging, and the most effective conduit for getting the tailored message to the targeted audience.
Certain preliminary tasks performed prior to drafting a strategic communications plan can greatly facilitate the planning process and lead to a more focused and effective initiative. The following suggestions are addressed to those responsible for developing a strategic plan.
In general terms, a strategic plan for communications typically includes a statement of objectives, identification of target audience(s) and their information needs, proposed activities to achieve the objectives, list of resources needed, and means to assess impact and measure success.
A concise statement of the objective(s) is key to the success of a communications plan because it defines the intent, scope and audience. The interests and character of the audience guide the nature of the information provided, its packaging, and means for delivering it to the target audience. With regard to any subject matter, basic communication objectives are:
In communicating about biotechnology and biosafety, the objectives of a plan are determined by the priority information needs of the intended audience, priorities and objectives of the sponsoring organization, and the time and resources available. Specific objectives may be, for example, (1) to make evident to decision makers that modern biotechnology can be an effective tool for increasing agricultural productivity, and thereby economic growth, without imposing unacceptable risk to the environment or human and animal health; (2) to enable members of the public to make informed decisions about appropriate uses of biotechnology by providing accurate information about benefits, risks and impacts; or (3) to incorporate modern biotechnology into science curricula for secondary schools, university and college students, and agriculture extension officers. Framing the objectives in concrete terms will guide subsequent decisions on what activities to undertake, and will suggest criteria for evaluating overall impact of the initiative.
Experience has shown that the public's questions, concerns and fears, if ignored or trivialized by biotechnology proponents, can become adversarial issues that are difficult to resolve.
Each target group or audience trusts some communicators but not others, responds to different formats and styles of presentation, and accesses information through preferred channels. Part of a communications strategy is to capitalize on audience preferences in order to maximize the exchange of information.
The choice of communicators deserves special attention as it is key to effective information delivery. Who are the people trusted by each audience? Who lacks credibility? Audiences will be more receptive to what they hear if it comes from someone they respect and trust. In some places, for example, government authorities may enjoy the public's full confidence. In others, government officials may not be well-respected and may even be viewed with suspicion. Health care professionals and religious leaders often receive high marks for public trust. The public usually considers industry representatives, particularly those from large multi-national seed companies, as being among the least trustworthy sources, regardless of how well-informed they may be. Trusted spokespersons may be found among:
Capable, effective biotechnology spokespersons may be difficult to find. Fortunately, good communication skills can be learned. One of the most useful first steps in conducting an information initiative is to create a pool of skilled communicators. Good candidates for communications training should have a basic understanding of the subject matter, but need not have a technical background. A cadre of trained spokespersons can serve as 'information activists' and play a catalytic role in conducting national information initiatives.
Making information available is only part of an information initiative; equally important is packaging it to make it attractive and accessible to the intended audience. Local culture and tradition influence how people prefer to obtain information; accordingly, these factors will guide decisions on how best to formulate and deliver information so that people "get the message". Commonly used formats, such as newspaper articles, panel discussions at public meetings and brochures distributed at conferences, can be effective for certain audiences. Demonstration field plots, displays for farm shows, briefing notes for extensionists and farm radio broadcasts can be used to explain biotechnology to farmers and in rural communities.
A government official may spend less than 30 sec glancing at 10-page report about biotechnology, but may take two min to read a list of bullet points highlighting what is known about the benefits and risks. Newspapers may be a primary information source for educated people, however TV may be a more important source for the general population. Where literacy rates are low, videos, small plays or colorful picture stories could be more effective than words in explaining how new, genetically engineered seeds can affect the lives of local people. The scientific society ANBio (the Brazilian Biosafety Association), publishes BIOPOP, a magazine oriented to scientific education, diffusion and popularization of biotechnology. BIOPOP is sent to all public high schools through the Ministry of Education, and has a total circulation of 28000 copies for each issue. Educational curriculum materials, such as those on the web page www.porquebiotecnologia.com.ar, can be developed for different academic levels and adapted for distance learning programs. With a little creativity and imagination, many other means of delivering information can be devised for specific audiences.
Public information efforts in biotechnology are rarely pro-active; rather, they usually appear in response to highly visible opposition campaigns seeking to arouse fear and cultivate resistance to the use of GM crops. A pro-active, strategic approach seeks to provide information for particular audiences in a timely manner. A strategic plan determines when and in what order activities are conducted, based on their priority with respect to the stated objectives. Criteria for prioritizing activities might include:
Once a sequence is established, planners can complete an implementation plan that includes for each activity a brief description, the party responsible for organizing the activity, potential partner institutions and collaborators, proposed cost, expected outcomes and/or outputs, and short - and long-term measures of impact.
Basic resources needed to operate an information initiative (administrative infrastructure, secretarial support, communications, travel, materials and supplies) are similar to other such undertakings, and are not elaborated here.
A strategic plan for public communications requires a variety of specialized expertise. Planners may wish to include communication specialists, technical writers, graphic artists and illustrators to design information materials and conduct training. Professional fees or stipends may need to be budgeted in some cases. Videos are an excellent way to inform and educate, but can be expensive to produce professionally. Budgets for public meetings, conferences, workshops and the like quickly escalate as costs for suitable meeting space, office and presentation equipment, food service, supplies, honoraria and travel are added up.
The frequent solution to limited financial and human resources is to work in partnership with local, national and regional organizations. Early in the planning process is the best time to engage potential partners and identify their specific contributions. Creative approaches to meet resource needs can also stimulate additional interest in biotechnology. For example, rather than hiring a graphic artist to design print materials about food safety, university students enter a competition to design a poster explaining how GM foods are evaluated for safety. Winning entries would be used to illustrate brochures, presentations, classroom posters, calendars and other materials.
An initial assessment of public perceptions, as noted above, provides a benchmark against which to measure the impact of a public information initiative. The most direct kind of assessment is to survey a sample of people representative of the target group before and after the initiative. Valid results depend on a properly structured questionnaire and survey process. Interestingly, ANBio in
Surveys, however, are only one way to measure success. Various indicators can be used to determine to what extent the objectives have been met. If, for example, one of the objectives is to increase the accuracy and amount of media coverage, measures of success might include evidence of improved quality of reporting by journalists. Has the frequency of newspaper articles about biotechnology increased? Do the articles fairly describe benefits as well as potential risks? Do they include supporting evidence for any claims made and name the source of the information?
If bringing information to farmers and rural communities was one of the objectives, do farmers who have learned about biotech crops show interest in trying GM seeds? Where some government action related to biotechnology was hindered by lack of good information, are better-informed policy makers now taking appropriate action? Are government leaders publicly showing support for testing and/or use of GM crops?
Attendance figures for workshops and conferences are often cited as evidence of impact, but the number of attendees in itself is not a measure of success. More rigorous evidence comes from follow-up contact with attendees to assess whether, upon returning to their jobs, they are able to apply what they learned and pass it along to others. Other useful indicators, again depending on the objectives and the activities carried out, might be the number of requests for biotechnology specialists to speak to public, private and government audiences, addition of biotechnology to science education curricula, or scientists publicly refuting false or misleading statements. The ultimate indicator, of course, is the presence of GM foods and foods with GM ingredients in the marketplace, being bought by consumers.
When the first GMOs were under development, there was little discussion about public perception. For the most part, biotechnology developers assumed the public would embrace the new technology because its benefits were "obvious"; they dismissed public concerns as irrelevant. All the evidence to date shows exactly the opposite is true. Lack of accurate information about the tangible benefits to be gained from its application to agriculture, industry, medicine and health, and inaccurate perceptions about the nature, magnitude and likelihood of potential risks, have helped create the current climate of public mistrust and resistance.
The public will accept biotechnology only when individuals decide for themselves that GM crops and food products will contribute to their personal well-being. To make such a decision, ordinary people will need greater awareness and understanding of how biotechnology will affect the environment, human health, local and national economies, and the well-being of society. Also key to public acceptance is the establishment of a functional regulatory system having legitimate authority to control use of the technology, and public awareness that such a system operates to protect the environment and human and animal health.
We acknowledge the comments of Dr. Moises Burachik,
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