As Europe and the United States square themselves for the battle of the GM at the upcoming WTO trade talks in Cancun, Mexico next week, it would appear that US consumers are far less concerned than their politicans about biotechnology, with a new study finding almost a third of the public totally ambivalent about the new technology.
Albeit small, the survey of New York state residents on the use of biotechnology in food and agriculture appears to reflect the public's rather non-commital view of biotechnology in food and agriculture. While 39 per cent of New Yorkers oppose the use of genetically modified food, compared with 33 per cent who support it, almost a third - 29 per cent - is undecided and neither opposes nor favours the use of biotechnology.
The findings, conducted by the Survey Research Institute at Cornell university's school of industrial and labor relations, finds residents similarly divided on whether the use of biotechnology is risky. Thirty-seven per cent believe the risks of using biotechnology in food are greater than any benefits; 36 per cent say the overall benefits are greater than any potential risk, and 28 per cent think the benefits and risks are about equal.
"Public opinion about biotechnology appears to be much less polarised than commonly assumed," said Clint Nesbitt, manager of a Cornell public-issues education project on genetically engineered products. "Even among supporters and opponents, strength of opinion varies considerably. This suggests that the more strident voices so often heard in the public arena are not necessarily representative of public opinion at large and that there is fertile ground for a more-nuanced, balanced discussion of the issues," he added.
The study also examined the demographics and behaviour of New Yorkers who oppose, support or are undecided on the use of biotechnology. Apparently, opponents are more likely to be female, ideologically liberal and younger than those in the other two groups. As more gristle for the pro-biotech mill, the survey claims opponents are less likely to pay attention to news on science and biotechnology, are less aware of or informed about biotechnology issues and have fewer years of achieved education.
In contrast, proponents of biotechnology tend to be male and ideologically moderate. They pay more attention to news about science and biotechnology, claims the survey, are aware of or informed about the subject, and have more years of achieved education.
Neatly, about half of the undecideds are male and half are female. They are the least aware of or informed about the issues, compared with opponents or proponents. However, finds the survey, of the three groups they have the most years of achieved education.
New legislation in Europe - largely driven by consumer demand - angered the United States last month when MEPs voted to step up labelling standards, improving consumer information and clarity about GM content in all crops and ingredients.
Under the new law, all foods with more than 0.9 per cent genetically modified content will have to be labelled. A stipulation in the new rules that any product derived from GM ingredients but whose presence is undetectable - such as cooking oil - should still be labelled as genetically modified has dismayed biotech firms.
The US has complained that traceability requirements are unnecessary, expensive and a barrier to trade. Earlier this month the US, along with Argentina and Canada, asked the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to set up a dispute settlement panel to decide whether or not the EU's policies on genetically modified organisms constitute a barrier to trade.