New book looks at public perception and media treatment of GMOs

by Terry Devitt, UW-Madison Communications

Although the vast majority of Americans are blithely unaware, the United States and its system of food production is irreversibly hitched to modern biotechnology. In short, most people unwittingly and regularly consume food that was produced through genetic engineering.

With the exception perhaps of the local organic food cooperative and direct-to-consumer organic farms, it may well be impossible to avoid consuming food products that have not been touched by modern agricultural biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Tens of millions of acres of genetically modified crops, in particular corn and soybeans, are planted each year and find their way into the processed foods that are the staple of the American diet.

Although there was debate and controversy in the early days (remember bovine growth hormone?), for the most part Americans have either accepted the new technology or ignored the issue and go right on munching corn chips and drinking fruit juice made with the help of crops that have genes from organisms other than corn built in to enhance production or quality.

For its part, the popular news media in America portrayed issues of GMO safety and environmental risk as typical controversies, covering the poles of the subject with not a great body of work delineating the objective merits and demerits of the technology. The result is a public that, for the most part, is uninformed about what is on its collective dinner plate and the costs of its production.

To tease out the issue of public perception of GMOs, modern agricultural biotechnology and the role of the press, University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism Professor Dominique Brossard and a small international army of her colleagues have collaborated to produce “The Public, the Media and Agricultural Biotechnology.” The book is a 405-page scholarly compendium that explores public perception of agricultural biotechnology using case studies and analyses of the mosaic of public opinion and news media behavior in the United States and other countries, notably the United Kingdom, Germany, India, Switzerland, the Philippines and South Africa.

The international perspective is fascinating, as public debate over GMO food can vary dramatically depending on cultural and national context. In Germany, for instance, a country with a rich and dramatic association with transformational technologies, GMOs in food are verboten as far as the public is concerned, although medical advances utilizing genetic engineering are well accepted.

Alternatively, the Philippines was the first country in Asia to have a biotech crop for food and feed approved for commercialization. The introduction there of maize engineered to express the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterial toxin to thwart the Asian maize borer unfolded over seven years of “rigid scientific study and evaluation, with the public and private sectors involved in the various stages of the research and development process.” Still, there was bitter debate between those for and against.

The book, according to Brossard, is an effort to bridge academic assessment of public opinion and how it is formed through the press for policymakers, scientists, and others who seek to influence public opinion, including journalists. Three additional UW-Madison faculty contributed: journalism and mass communication professors Sharon Dunwoody and Dietram Scheufele, and life sciences communication Professor Al Gunther.

The big lesson for policymakers and scientists, explains Brossard, is that, for any given issue, there is “a complex model of public opinion that comes into play and a naive approach is a recipe for failure.” Among the many variables that influence public debate on GMOs, and consequently public opinion, are the ethical, legal, social and scientific implications of the technology.

The lessons presented in “The Public, the Media and Agricultural Biotechnology” are a valuable blueprint for effectively bringing the public into any discussion of technology. As society wrestles with new technological controversies – stem cells and nanotechnology come quickly to mind – the hope is some of that blueprint will help frame the debates in constructive ways.

The book is edited by Brossard, Fairfield University Professor of Communication James Shanahan and T. Clint Nesbitt of the Biotechnology Regulatory Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The publisher is the not-for-profit intergovernmental organization CABI, based in Oxford, UK.