Genetically modified food and crops: perceptions of risks
Hall, Clare R.
The debate around genetically modified food and crops has proved to be complex and far-reaching, involving diverse stakeholder groups and many issues. Although the extent of global uptake of GM crops has been substantial (23 countries and 114.65 million hectares by 2007), it is significant that four countries are responsible for 86% of all GM plantings, and that a number of key food markets (for example the EU and Japan) remain largely "GM-free‟. This suggests that there is reluctance on the part of many countries to embrace GM technology. There are likely many reasons for this, but one significant issue is that of the perception of the risks associated with the technology. There is a distinction between risk that exists in the world and that can be measured (objective risk) and risk that is perceived by an individual to exist and that is constructed by them based on their values and preferences. When technical measurement of actual risks is not possible, peoples‟ own perceptions of risks become important. This thesis aims to investigate the topic of risk perceptions associated with GM food and crops. Different stakeholder groups have been targeted, and a range of methodologies from a variety of disciplines have been employed to investigate what factors can be shown to influence risk perception. A range of factors were identified from existing literature, as having potential impact on risk perceptions. A number of these were investigated, some of which were found to have some influence on levels of risk perception. Results demonstrate that factors influencing peoples‟ perceptions of risk relating to GM food and crops, include the uncertainty associated with the technology, and trust in regulators, policy makers and others with control over the future development of the technology. Other factors found to be important to levels of risk perception held by different stakeholder groups, were a range of socio-demographic and cultural variables, the relationship between perceived risks and benefits, the equity of impacts, and the influence of third parties. There are a number of implications for the development of the GM debate arising from the findings. First, as there are socio-demographic and cultural factors linked to the perceptions of risk associated with GM technologies in food and agriculture, it is important to recognise that different people will react differently to the technology. Specifically, results from this thesis show that it may be that men, those who are more highly educated, those with a less ecocentric worldview, and those living in urban areas, are likely to respond more favourably to targeted promotional campaigns. As regards the farming community, results show that the first farming adopters are likely to be those who are both owners and tenants, not in an urban fringe location, potato growers, and not barley growers. Second, this thesis provides evidence that third parties are particularly important to farmers, thus it is crucial to recognise that there is potentially a long chain of action and reaction amongst many different stakeholders and actors impacting on farmers' levels of risk perception, and hence willingness to adopt the technology. Third, results from this research demonstrate that the linked issues of the relationship between risks and benefits, and the equity of (positive and negative) impacts, require that all stakeholders are content that they will receive a share of the benefits (if any) to be derived from the technology, and that neither they nor any other group of stakeholders are unduly impacted by the risks or negative impacts (if any) of the technology. Important here is the recognition that perceptions are as important as actual impacts. Fourth, the issue of trust has been shown by the results obtained by this research to be extremely important to peoples' perceptions of risk. It can be concluded that trust is of wider social and political importance that relates to the need to ensure greater democratisation of decision-making in order to re-establish trust in authorities. In the case of GM food this may require a rethinking of the EU legislation relating to the technology. This also relates to point below about the delivery of messages and education. Information sources must be trusted by those at whom the messages are aimed. More importantly though, if people are to trust decision making processes, there needs to be stakeholder involvement at an early stage of decision making, that allows some impact on decisions taken. In the case of the GM debate it may indeed be too late as decisions about the technology, its applications, the regulatory processes and its inclusion within the food chain are well established. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that lessons will be learnt and applied to future technology developments of relevance to the food chain, such as, nano-technology. Finally, this thesis has shown that uncertainty is central to peoples' perceptions of risk. This could be addressed through a combination of additional research into what is uncertain to people, the impacts and implications of the technology, more effective dissemination of existing knowledge, and impartially delivered messages and education strategies from trusted sources that address the concerns that people have about the technology. Importantly however there must be an acknowledgement that uncertainty is not restricted to "knowledge deficit‟ but encompasses the scientific uncertainties inherent within the technology, and is framed by the social and cultural values of those whose views are considered. This thesis uniquely targeted diverse groups and employed a combination of different methods from a variety of disciplines. By doing this the study has increased understanding of the views of two groups (campaigners and farmers) who are crucial to the uptake of the technology, and who are seldom researched in the area of attitudes to GM technologies. The diversity of groups, methods and disciplines brought together in this thesis is important because the issue of GM has proved to be complex and far-reaching, and previous discussions of risk perceptions have been complex and disjointed. All groups investigated here are stakeholders in the process, and as such their views and concerns relating to risk perceptions of GM technologies ought to be taken into consideration.