The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)
Quantifying Scientific Risk Communications of Agrobiotechnology
Leonie A. Marks, University of Missouri-Columbia
Farmers in certain parts of the world (e.g., the United States (US) and Argentina) have embraced agrobiotechnology at unprecedented rates. In other parts of the world, however, consumers have rejected the technology with almost the same speed. In Europe, a militant, vocal groundswell of opposition has emerged from consumer and environmental groups, food safety advocates, and religious and ethical organizations.
The rejection of agrobiotechnology in Europe has led to a fragmented response by industry, regulators and policy makers alike. Some have argued for a deeper understanding of the structural benefits and risks posed by the use of biotechnology. Others have suggested that poor perceptions of risk are a result of the failure to communicate scientific issues in a meaningful way to the general public. Further risk assessment of biotechnology, a more participatory approach to decision making (involving the key stakeholders), and better risk (benefit) communication of biotechnology have been proposed as solutions to increase consumer confidence. At the extreme, the precautionary principle has been invoked as an alternative in the absence of public consensus.
Is poor public perception one of failure to adequately convey the risks (benefits) to the public (i.e., failure of communication)? Or is there a lack of consensus in the scientific community that has been picked up by the media? Is there confusion over what the risks are? Is this confusion due to a lack of scientific consensus, or due to media coverage that may exaggerate the risks? Has the scientific community addressed all the risks/concerns, or is there a lack of scientific research (in some areas) to confirm or dispute potential risks reported by the media? Are a few scientists / articles being reported disproportionately (e.g., the Monarch butterfly research) not representing the true state of knowledge in the science?
In this paper, we systematically analyze coverage in scientific journals (for example, Science and Nature among others), and conference proceeding publications related to biotechnology. Conference proceedings provide up-to-date research, which may be on specialized topic areas, such as biosafety. The objectives are to: i) outline potential risks (benefits) identified by scientists; ii) quantify and test hypotheses regarding the degree of consensus (if any) that exists about the relative risks (benefits) of agricultural applications; and iii) inventory the degree of risk assessment that has been undertaken by scientists. We use content analysis, a systematic, objective, quantitative method for studying and analyzing communications (Wimmer & Dominick). This technique has been used with success in similar investigations (Hagedorn & Allender-Hagedorn). Hypotheses are tested using chi-square, t-tests and analysis or variance (ANOVA) (Wimmer & Dominick).
Appropriate regulatory and policy responses require a clear understanding of the risks presented by biotechnology, how these have been communicated, and by whom. This approach allows us to obtain a clear inventory of knowledge in this area; identify gaps in knowledge where the public is demanding information; and highlight how regulatory authorities have responded in their risk communications.