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Public Acceptance of Genetically Engineered Food in Developing Countries – The Case of Transgenic Rice in the Philippines –
Pilipp Aerni
Research assistant at the Department of Agricultural Economics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
Peter Rieder
Professor at the Department of Agricultural Economics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

In industrialized countries, public acceptance of high technologies, such as genetic engineering, is a frequently discussed issue. The attitude of people in developing countries is often neglected since it is assumed that public resistance to high technologies is a phenomenon only encountered in affluent societies. However, the Philippines faces an opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture led by non-government organizations (NGO’s). There is an ongoing public debate on transgenics including congressional hearings. The debate is mainly focused on the transgenic Bt Rice and its potential contribution to future food security in Asia.

In this context, public acceptance of genetically engineered rice has become a critical issue in the Philippines. There is a doubt about the value of transgenic crops and a lack of confidence in the respective institutions which promote transgenics. It indicates that there is a danger of increasing polarization in the debate which might well hinder future development cooperation.

Within this context, the objective of the study was to examine the risk and benefit perceptions of transgenic rice among the main participants (political actors) in the Philippine debate. The political consequences of the public debate were to be anticipated through an assessment of the relative influence of the political actors on the political decision-making processes, the public opinion and the debate on transgenics. For this purpose, a survey of 65 respondents representing institutions from science, government, legislative, business, "civil society", media and international foundations involved in the debate on genetic engineering in agriculture was conducted using a semi-standardized questionnaire. Respondents were selected with the help of 5 key informants who are familiar with the debate and the actors involved.

The general perception of risks and benefits of genetic engineering in agriculture was examined by a descriptive analysis. Perception patterns among the participants were evaluated by a cluster analysis and the political weights of the actors were assessed through a policy network analysis.

The descriptive analysis of the survey showed that, in general, marketing and infrastructure problems are perceived by all respondents to be the main difficulties of the Philippine rice economy. The contribution of genetic engineering is seen mainly in solving agronomic problems such as pest infestation and plant disease.

The cluster analysis revealed three perception groups: The first group consisted mainly of NGO’s and other public interest groups. They showed a negative attitude towards genetic engineering in agriculture. The policy network analysis indicated that this group possessed a remarkable influence on public opinion, although they were not considered very important with regard to political decision-making processes. The second group was dominated by politicians and government officials considered to be central in the political decision-making processes. They revealed very high expectations with regard to the potential of genetic engineering in agriculture. But their attitude towards risks and benefits related to this technology was rather ambivalent. The third group consisted mainly of scientists and representatives of the business community in the Philippines. They had a more modest view of the potential of genetic engineering. However, they were less concerned about risks and more optimistic about the benefits for society. This group appeared to play a central role in the debate on genetic engineering in agriculture.