Introduction

A major problem in public discourse and debate over modern technologies is the lack of accurate information and a scientifically questionable foundation. This is certainly clear in the public debate surrounding agricultural biotechnology. The quality of the debate is generally poor, largely because the widespread ignorance of techniques used in ordinary food production precludes a logical comparator baseline. Lacking a solid understanding of the status quo baseline, people have no appropriate means to compare the risks and benefits of biotechnology.

The answers to questions taken from a survey by the Food Policy Institute (Hallman et al., 2004) illustrate the level of knowledge of food and biotechnology in the US (Table 2.1).

These sample (but non-random) questions from the larger survey illustrate the poor level of popular knowledge of biotechnology. Particularly disturbing is the observation that the first six questions require binary answers—that is, simple "yes" or "no." That means a person who did not know the subject matter and simply guessed would have a 50% chance of getting the correct answer. Overall, if all respondents were completely ignorant and simply guessed at every answer, the results would be statistically close to 50%. But on these six questions, the correct answers range from 30% to 48%. In order to skew the results so far down and away from random guessing, a substantial portion of respondents must have thought they knew the correct answer, and so did not simply guess. But they were wrong in their "knowledge"! Although these select questions are not representative of the complete survey, they do serve to illustrate a major problem in the agbiotech debate—many people believe they know something about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and

Table 2.1 Food Policy Institute survey

Survey results (% correct)

Are GM foods in US supermarkets?

48

Do ordinary tomatoes contain genes?

40

Would a tomato with a fish gene taste "fishy"?

42

If you ate a GM fruit, might it alter your genes?

45

Can animal genes be inserted into a plant?

30

Give an example of GM food on the market

79 tomatoes

therefore are confident in their answers to questions, but are wrong. This state of affairs is clearly worse than people recognizing and admitting they do not know much about GMOs and simply guessing answers to questions. Another major problem is the use of terminology.

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