Genetic engineering: Cross species and cross cultural perspectives


pp. 159-80 in Dialog der Kulturen , ed. S. Fritsch-Oppermann (Evangelische Akademie Loccum, 2003).
Author: Darryl R. J. Macer

Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba,
Tsukuba Science City 305-8572, Japan
Fax: Int+81-298-53-6614
Email: Macer@sakura.cc.tsukuba.ac.jp
Director, Eubios Ethics Institute <http://eubios.info/index.html>
Head, International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS) Bioethics Program


 

Introduction

         The use of living organisms is essential for human beings.  The transformation by human beings of one variety of plant into another variety of plant, including parts of a second or third organism as a genetic donor, raises ethical issues and public concerns that are becoming more obvious with the criticisms made against biotechnology and genetic engineering.  The word "biotechnology" simply means using living organisms, or parts of them, to provide goods or services.  Although it has been practiced ever since humans farmed food in every culture, the use of genetic engineering has evoked strong emotions from at least some people in all societies.  We must ask the question what people think of biotechnology, and whether most people share the concerns that the critics voice.  We can ask whether these concerns are similar between countries and cultures, noting that the international networking involved in protests has led to the appearance that similar concerns are shared across all cultures. 

            There have been several major surveys on attitudes to biotechnology.  Understanding, the public image of biotechnology is useful for different groups of people.  These type of studies have at least two purposes, one being academic study, and the other being public relations for the biotechnology industry.  Both of these purposes are relevant to the formulation of policy that will be appropriate to each country. There are few surveys looking at the acceptance of biotechnology in developing countries.  In 1993 the International Bioethics Survey was conducted in Australia (A), Hong Kong (HK), India (In), Israel (Is), Japan (J), New Zealand (NZ), The Philippines (P), Russia (R), Singapore (S) and Thailand (T), with the aid of collaborators [1].  The survey finds that people have both hopes and fears about biotechnology, and in different countries we see a similarly diverse range of opinions. In all cases more support is given for specific applications that are perceived to be for a worthy goal than for general questions.  These conclusions have been maintained through the 1990s, but in all countries there has been a drop in public support for biotechnology and genetic engineering, while at the same time genetic engineered crops have become standard varieties in major agricultural producing countries, such as United States and China.

 

People's opinion

         There are various strategies being used to study public opinion.  The first type is the use of fixed response questions, to chose options from set answers.  While these surveys provide some assessment of public acceptance, they generally use simple set questions. Other survey strategies look at reasoning more than just statistics which may shed more light on the factors which will affect policy development. In Japan I started studies with set and open questions in 1991 [2], among public, academics, and high school teachers, and the most recent survey was conducted in the year 2000 [3, 4], which allows a decade to be examined.

Open questions are more laborious to analyze, but may be able to measure the real concerns that people have, and I believe they are especially useful in cross-cultural studies.  There are few surveys looking at the acceptance of biotechnology in developing countries. The International Bioethics Survey included 150 questions with 35 open ones, on subjects in biotechnology and genetics in 1993 [1].  The basic problem of surveys is how well they represent the population being surveyed.  It is difficult to obtain samples from countries in Asia with large rural populations which can be said to represent the whole country.  Another approach to surveys is to sample the same population group across countries and make comparisons, for example students or teachers. 

The surveys found that some arguments that are often used in biotechnology debates, such as eugenic fears or environmental risk, are not the major concerns voiced by people in open questions [1].  The more common concerns are interference with nature or general fear of a less concrete nature. In all cultures many people perceive both benefit and risk simultaneously, they are attempting to balance these; and also educated people show as much concern as the ordinary public.            

Comparisons of acceptance of enhancement genetic engineering (e.g. for enhancing intelligence by gene therapy, or making a sports fish) show opinions in Japan and Oceania are more reserved, with people in China [5], Thailand and India being significantly more enthusiastic [1].  Europe [6,7,8] and North America [9,10,11] tend to be similar to Japan and Oceania.  The open comments are discussed concerning views on the ethical limits of the use of biotechnology and genetics to change living organisms, including humans.  The open comments not only revealed few fears of eugenics or playing God, but more comments support improving genes or economic benefits.

 

 Benefits and Risks of Science and Technology

         In all countries ever surveyed there is a positive view of science and technology.  It is perceived as increasing the quality of life by the majority in all countries, and it is clear that we live in a global culture supporting technology.  In the International Bioethics Survey, when asked about specific developments of technology, including in vitro fertilization, computers, pesticides, nuclear power, biotechnology and genetic engineering, both benefits and risks were cited by many respondents.  These areas of science and technology include several controversial subjects.  Scattergrams of the benefits and risks of these different examples in India, Japan, New Zealand and Thailand are in Figure 1.

         While surveys show that at least 10% more people are concerned in the year 2000 than 1993 [3,4,8,11], the relative positions are similar. That is, inside all countries there remain the cultures of acceptance and rejection of genetic engineering, with a middle ground. In 1993, 46% (NZ) and 59% (A) saw biotechnology as worthwhile, less than 72-75% in Israel, Russia, Japan and India; and about 90% in Thailand [1].  About one third of all samples had no worries, one third had a few worries, and the rest had some or a lot.  The results confirm people can perceive both benefit and risk, not simply taking up one position, for example, although Australians were more positive about biotechnology, they also had more worries, with 17% having a lot of worries, compared to 10% in NZ.  About a half did not say any benefit, and there was a variety of benefits given, with general hopes for humanity being the major reason.  Only a few saw it as unnatural, the major worry being human misuse.

            The attitudes to genetic engineering varied somewhat, even between close countries such as New Zealand and Australia, with 41% (NZ) and 62% (A) seeing it as worthwhile, and 39% (NZ) and 34% (A) having a lot of worries.  13-14% in NZ gave reasons that it was unnatural or playing God, compared to 9% in Australia, in both the benefit and risk question.  However, as we will see later, people were more positive about specific examples. 

            China was the country which first began growing large areas of GMOs for consumption, but by 1996 the USA had also approved use of herbicide-tolerant (e.g. to Roundup herbicide) and disease resistant soybeans and maize. The US is the world's major soybean producer, and soybean extracts are found in about half the processed food in a supermarket in Europe. Following this we can see a clash of cultures between The Monsanto Corporation and Europe, which accused the that Corporation of not listening to the groups that would be responsible for marketing their "Roundup Ready" soybean, as they shipped these beans to soy processors in Europe.  Protesters around Europe in 1996 nearly led to a trade war nearly began between USA and Europe. The issue was whether the so-called "Roundup Ready" could be, and should be, segregated from other beans. Earlier in 1996, European retail and wholesale groups had asked for separate streams for the Roundup Ready. Retailers in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom wanted segregation so that they could label the products appropriately. German, Austrian, Finnish, and Swedish retailers wanted a separate stream so that they could exclude genetically manipulated food either "for the foreseeable future" or "until consumers are happy." In 1997 an explosion of opinion occurred in Europe, followed by other regions of the world, and the GM debate has led to a significant drop in the proportion of people who support genetic engineering.

            In 1996 1-2% of soybeans were genetically modified, and by the year 2000 over half are.  Monsanto argued that thousands of different processed food products have soybeans as an ingredient, and that the products are distinguishable only in  insignificant details. The regulators and most retailers agreed initially, but the public reaction insisted labels are needed. However, labels are being introduced in Australasia, Europe and Japan as a result of public pressure by activist groups and the fear of not being in "control" of the food eaten.  Even the US Food and Drug Administration that long opposed labeling of GM food, made concessions in the year 2000. 

International food trade is globalized under trade agreements.  There can be few topics of science that touch people everyday more than food.  The science of breeding plants and animals, fermenting products like curds, and using nature to provide for human need is an ancient one. After a decade of debate on the topic of the safety of food produced from GMOs (GM food), the Task Force on Novel Foods Produced by Biotechnology was set up at the 1999 meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint FAO/WHO body that regulates the safety of food in the world.

The debate reveals a clash of political cultures, though the opinion surveys show these views are found in every society no matter what position the government takes. Under the WTO trade agreements, a trade sanction or barrier can only be imposed if there are so-called legitimate factors. There is much debate on what are other legitimate factors to consider, because this includes ethical, social, religious, economic and environment factors.  In the intergovernmental negotiations, some delegations use delaying tactics to try to put debate off onto other Codex Committees.  It is expected they will enter into discussions in later meetings, but the majority of delegations want them to be discussed.  Those against are the US-led group of countries.  It should be noted that in the year 2000 countries agreed to the Cartegena Protocol to govern international movement of living modified organisms, which is under the Convention on Biological Diversity.  While this should manage environmental risks of living modified organisms, that includes seeds, processed products that are not alive are not included.

Together with the soybeans, Novartis glufosinate-tolerant (herbicide) Bacillus thuriengensis insecticidal toxin gene (insect resistance) - containing maize is sold in Europe and around the world as most processed foods contain soybean or corn. It is difficult to label so many different food products as having potentially some extract from the crops which are made from GMOs.  Numerous other companies are introducing crops, and most seed producers offer the choice of seeds from GMOs.  Not only rich countries but also developing countries plant GM seeds. Thailand has approved some field trials of GMOs from European and US companies for GMOs, and the technology can also be easily copied, so that we can expect widespread use of products around Asia.

 

Table 1: Approval of environmental release of GMOs

Q31. If there was no direct risk to humans and only very remote risks to the environment, would you approve or disapprove of the environmental use of genetically engineered organisms designed to produce...?  

Yes- Approve  No- Disapprove   DK Don't know

 

%

Public ('93)

Medical or biology students ('93)

 

School biology teachers

 

%

NZ

A

J2000

J93

J91

In

Th

R

Is

NZ

A

J

In

T

P

S

HK

NZ

A

J

In

 

 

Tomatoes with better taste

Yes

49

54

58

69

-

73

83

35

40

54

53

71

77

88

68

74

58

67

60

67

76

 

No

35

35

32

20

-

20

10

45

44

21

36

15

17

5

27

17

32

22

25

21

20

 

DK

16

11

10

11

-

7

7

20

16

15

11

14

6

7

5

9

10

11

15

12

4

 

 

Healthier meat (e.g. less fat)

Yes

54

60

52

57

-

66

84

35

44

74

71

65

68

88

75

72

62

72

71

60

72

 

No

30

31

33

26

-

22

9

43

42

20

23

18

18

4

21

17

27

18

18

24

16

 

DK

16

9

15

17

-

12

7

21

14

6

6

17

14

8

4

11

11

10

11

16

12

 

 

Larger sport fish

Yes

22

19

19

22

19

48

58

13

20

28

23

24

50

64

54

44

42

26

22

19

56

 

No

61

65

64

54

50

27

25

61

58

63

65

52

31

20

40

39

37

59

64

64

20

 

DK

17

16

17

24

31

25

17

26

22

9

12

24

19

16

6

17

21

15

14

17

24

 

 

Bacteria to clean up oil spills

Yes

75

82

65

71

75

74

87

63

70

92

89

76

74

85

78

86

70

85

91

77

68

 

No

11

11

21

13

7

14

5

20

12

1

4

10

13

6

19

6

23

7

3

12

16

 

DK

14

8

14

16

18

12

8

17

18

7

7

14

13

9

3

8

7

8

6

11

16

 

 

Disease resistant crops

Yes

70

78

54

66

75

78

91

54

50

81

81

67

81

91

82

83

72

85

83

71

84

 

No

16

13

29

17

6

13

4

25

28

7

13

13

11

5

15

8

14

10

7

15

8

 

DK

14

9

17

17

19

9

5

21

22

12

6

20

8

4

3

9

14

5

10

14

8

 

 

Cows which produce more milk

Yes

36

39

42

44

-

75

84

23

38

55

44

49

72

86

70

57

54

59

57

56

80

 

No

45

42

40

32

-

19

7

38

40

31

35

29

19

5

26

25

34

28

25

26

16

 

DK

19

19

18

24

-

6

9

39

20

14

21

22

9

9

4

18

12

13

18

18

4

 

 

Support for use of GMOs

         There is support for the specific examples of environmental release of genetically modified organisms, as shown in Table 1.  The highest level of support was seen for bacteria to clean oil spills and disease resistant crops, with over half the people supporting tasty tomatoes or meat with less fat.  These survey data suggest the products would be generally supported around the world.  There was less support for enhancing milk production in cows in the International Bioethics Survey, which may be because we ask whether we really need more milk.  It received less support in the International Bioethics Survey than the goal of less fatty meat, which is consistent with the existing milk surplus in some countries.  This has become reality in 1994 with the general use of bovine growth hormone (BST - bovine somatotropin) in the USA dairy industry, a hormone made by genetic engineering that can increase milk yield by 10-20%.  The FDA has warned farmers not to label milk BST-free if there is any chance that it is not, and the labeling issue is another problem.  Europe decided not to allow its use based on safety concerns, public rejection and lack of a need, and banned it.  Canada after ten years of trails decided to also ban the use of BST. Australia, New Zealand and Norway also have not allowed it. In the USA more than 10% of farmers used it in 1995, but they kept about one quarter of the 9.5 million dairy cows in the USA. Countries which have approved BST include Algeria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, Honduras, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Rumania, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, USA, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. In this case the political decision is based on need for self-sufficiency in dairy products rather than culture in the sense of spirit.

 

Cross-species genetic engineering

         In all countries surveyed around the world plant genetic engineering is seen as the most acceptable, followed by animals, microbes and then humans [2, 3, 7, 9].  Genetic engineering allows us to transfer genes with useful traits from one species to another. In all the countries surveyed, plant-plant gene transfers are most acceptable, with animal-animal next, and animal-plant or human-animal gene transfers generally least acceptable (Table 2).  A high proportion gave reasons supporting these applications in their open comments, and the most common reason against them was that they were "unnatural" (Table 3). The values in Australia were the same as India, whereas Japanese were more negative than New Zealanders. The students were more supportive in all countries. 

 

Table 2: Genetic engineering and cross species gene transfer

            

%

NZ

A

 

J

In

T

R

Is

NZ

A

J

In

T

P

S

H

Q9.  Genes from most types of organisms are interchangeable.  Would potatoes made more nutritious through biotechnology be acceptable or unacceptable to you if genes were added from another type of plant, such as corn?  Why?

Acceptable

56

56

32

39

56

82

45

50

86

75

51

58

78

65

79

76

Unacceptable

27

23

40

25

21

4

24

24

9

9

18

18

7

17

8

11

Don't know

17

21

28

36

23

14

31

26

5

16

31

24

15

18

13

13

Q10.  Would such potatoes be acceptable or unacceptable to you if the new genes came from an animal?  Why?

Acceptable

19

23

19

11

29

48

16

22

49

42

16

27

48

17

25

25

Unacceptable

60

54

54

40

42

19

42

52

32

24

37

39

19

58

48

48

Don't know

21

23

27

49

29

33

42

26

19

34

47

33

33

25

27

27

Q11. Would chicken made less fatty through biotechnology be acceptable or unacceptable if genes were added to the chicken from another type of animal?   Why?

Acceptable

29

40

-

20

40

68

32

26

50

42

30

42

68

42

41

42

Unacceptable

46

40

-

41

27

10

35

46

25

27

35

24

13

36

27

31

Don't know

25

20

-

39

33

22

33

28

25

31

35

34

19

22

32

27

Q12. Would such chicken be acceptable or unacceptable if the genes came from a human?Why?

Acceptable

10

16

-

6

16

29

10

14

20

20

11

18

30

7

14

19

Unacceptable

78

66

-

53

52

44

66

64

65

53

52

41

44

81

65

70

Don't know

12

18

-

41

32

27

24

22

15

27

37

41

26

12

21

11

 

         In the year 2000 survey in Japan two specific questions that were modified from the 1993 survey (Q9, Q10) to explore the acceptance of food products made from cross species gene transfer [3,4]. As in the 1993 survey, plant-plant gene transfers were more acceptable than plant-animal gene transfers, and scientists were more approving than the public (Table 4). We should note that because less people chose the "don't know" option in the 2000 sample the proportion of persons approving of Q6 increased, as did the proportion that disagreed.


Table 3 (1): Reasoning about cross species genetic engineering examples in open comments (Q9-12)

%

 

Public

Students

Negative:

Q?

NZ

A

J

India

T

R

Is

NZ

A

J

In

T

P

S

HK

Unethical

9

0.6

0

0.6

0

0

0.2

0

0

0

1.0

0.6

0

0.6

0

0

 

10

12.0

11.6

3.0

6.0

1.3

1.8

4

13.7

25.7

2.1

9.2

1.7

7.8

6.4

2.9

 

11

12.9

10.6

6.0

7.7

0.6

1.6

2

23.2

24.8

5.5

9.5

1.7

7.1

10.8

9.0

 

12

6.2

7.0

9.4

5.6

4.7

6.2

4

13.7

17.4

6.2

5.1

4.8

7.1

8.0

11.7

Unnatural,

9

15.5

10.6

12.8

10.6

1.3

5.3

6

4.2

3.6

8.3

7.6

3.5

1.9

4.0

6.7

Playing God,

10

32.0

27.6

21.2

17.7

5.4

9.1

14

18.9

11.9

16.4

14.3

5.6

20.1

13.6

20.4

Cross

11

24.0

16.1

17.9

11.0

1.7

6.2

14

16.8

11.9

12.1

5.1

1.7

7.1

3.6

11.0

Species bad

12

23.3

21.6

17.6

9.4

6.4

6.2

8

11.6

11.0

15.7

5.7

2.6

8.4

11.6

10.6

Product bad

9

3.0

3.0

3.2

3.8

0.8

2.4

0

2.1

0.9

1.9

3.5

0.4

1.9

2.4

1.0

Human's

10

2.5

2.5

1.8

1.5

1.5

0.4

0

2.1

1.8

1.4

2.5

0.9

2.6

3.6

3.9

special,

11

1.8

1.5

3.3

1.9

0.9

2.9

0

1.1

0

1.2

2.9

1.3

0

2.0

1.0

Cannibalism

12

24.5

11.6

7.0

16.6

12.0

6.9

16

30.5

18.3

8.8

11.8

13.9

26.6

19.2

19.4

Fear of

9

3.4

5.5

7.5

2.1

1.9

5.1

6

2.1

0.9

6.4

2.2

1.7

3.9

1.2

4.8

unknown,

10

9.5

9.0

12.8

3.0

5.8

5.3

6

2.1

0

14.5

4.1

6.5

10.4

6.4

10.7

Bad Feeling,

11

6.8

6.0

10.1

2.3

4.2

3.3

4

2.1

1.8

8.3

1.6

3.9

6.5

2.8

8.0

Dangerous

12

12.7

10.1

20.2

4.1

10.1

8.0

6

4.2

2.8

15.7

7.3

10.0

11.0

7.2

9.7

Social effects

9

0

0.5

0

0.2

0

0.2

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

Eugenics

10

1.5

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0.3

0.4

0

0

0

 

11

0

0

0.6

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0

0.4

0

0

0

 

12

0.3

0

0.6

0.4

0

0

0

0

1.8

1.0

0

0

0

0.8

0

Harm health

9

2.4

2.5

3.3

1.7

0.9

0.2

4

3.2

6.4

4.5

2.2

2.6

3.9

3.2

1.9

Deformities

10

2.8

1.5

3.6

1.9

2.8

0.7

0

2.1

6.4

3.8

3.8

6.1

6.5

3.6

1.0

 

11

2.5

1.5

4.2

1.5

3.4

0.9

0

1.1

4.6

4.0

0.6

4.8

5.8

4.8

1.0

 

12

2.5

3.0

1.5

2.6

2.9

0.4

0

1.1

2.8

2.1

1.9

4.3

2.6

4.4

1.0

Environment

9

1.2

2.5

4.2

0.4

0.4

0.4

0

2.1

5.5

3.3

0.9

0.4

0

0.8

0

 

10

0.6

2.5

2.4

0.2

0.3

0

0

2.1

2.8

1.2

0.3

0

0

0

1.0

 

11

0.9

1.2

2.1

0.4

0.3

1.6

0

0

2.5

2.4

0.3

0

2.8

0

0

 

12

0

0

1.2

0

0

0

0

0

0.9

2.4

0.3

0

0

0.4

0

Insufficient

9

1.8

0

4.5

0.6

0

1.3

0

3.2

0

3.6

0.3

0

0

0

0

Controls,

10

2.8

1.5

5.4

0

0.3

1.1

0

2.1

0

3.8

0

0.4

0.6

0

0

Misuse

11

4.3

2.0

5.7

0.2

0.3

1.8

0

3.2

0.9

9.3

0

0

0

0

0

 

12

4.7

1.5

6.5

0

0

1.1

0

7.4

2.8

4.8

0

0.4

0.6

0

1.0

Don't need

9

10.4

9.0

6.6

0.8

1.2

1.8

0

6.3

5.5

7.8

0.9

1.7

1.9

0.4

1.9

 

10

8.6

8.5

6.0

1.1

1.8

3.5

4

5.2

5.5

4.5

1.0

3.1

3.2

0.4

0

 

11

12.9

15.1

11.0

1.5

1.0

2.9

2

10.5

8.3

10.5

2.5

0.9

6.5

2.4

5.0

 

12

6.5

9.5

5.3

1.3

2.6

1.6

4

8.4

6.4

3.8

0.6

3.9

1.3

2.0

1.9

 

         The range of concerns show that there are still ethical concerns with genetic modification especially those in animals.  From the open comments, we can see why the respondents made a differentiation between the two different types of gene transfers.  Interestingly, the highest proportion of "Don't Know" was in scientists.  For example:

P21 I think that it's good so long as it does not have harmful effects on the body (Q5)

P21 For some reason I don't like it (Q6)

P25 Because they're both plants (Q5)

P25 Crossing animals with plants is not good (Q6)

Some people did not differentiate between plant-plant and plant-animal transfers.

P7 if you think about it from man's point of view, isn't it for our cause? (Q5, Q6)

P20 Because it goes against nature (Q5, Q6)


Table 3 (2): Reasoning about cross species genetic engineering examples in open comments (Q9-12)

 

%

 

Public

Students

Positive:

Q?

NZ

A

J

India

T

R

Is

NZ

A

J

In

T

P

S

HK

Conditional

9

9.8

10.0

9.9

7.2

5.0

12.4

6

10.5

11.9

14.0

6.0

4.3

11.0

6.8

4.8

Benefit,

10

9.2

11.0

13.1

8.1

11.4

12.0

6

12.6

22.0

17.3

11.7

13.0

10.4

10.8

7.8

Don't know

11

13.2

11.6

8.4

7.4

6.0

8.6

10

14.7

25.7

11.2

8.3

6.5

7.1

9.6

6.0

 

12

6.2

12.1

8.2

5.3

7.1

6.0

2

6.3

16.5

11.6

8.9

10.0

3.2

7.2

2.9

Medicine

9

7.9

8.0

3.0

8.7

3.6

1.1

2

18.9

25.7

4.8

11.1

3.5

9.7

10.8

2.9

 

10

2.8

3.0

2.1

2.6

3.9

0.2

0

10.5

4.6

0.5

2.5

4.4

0.6

1.2

0

 

11

6.8

10.5

7.5

3.2

7.3

1.6

4

10.5

5.5

4.3

17.5

8.7

15.6

9.6

17.0

 

12

6.9

1.0

1.8

2.3

1.6

0.2

2

3.2

0

2.4

3.2

1.3

0.6

0.8

1.0

Agriculture,

9

12.5

13.1

17.0

13.4

9.2

5.3

2

11.6

6.4

11.4

18.0

9.6

11.7

11.6

19.2

Food, Variety

10

1.8

6.5

1.8

3.2

2.6

1.6

0

5.3

2.8

1.9

4.1

5.7

2.6

2.8

4.9

 

11

1.5

5.0

4.2

1.9

2.1

2.2

2

3.2

2.8

3.8

1.9

3.0

3.9

2.0

3.0

 

12

0

2.0

0.6

0

0.7

0.4

0

0

1.8

0.3

0

1.3

1.3

0.8

1.9

Humanity,

9

16.8

13.6

11.6

11.3

18.8

6.2

4

18.9

20.2

10.9

13.6

28.2

16.2

10.4

27.9

Better

10

4.0

3.5

2.4

5.3

9.2

1.3

2

12.6

7.3

3.8

4.4

14.8

2.6

2.8

4.9

 

11

5.2

7.5

4.8

2.6

11.4

3.1

0

9.5

4.6

7.1

4.8

19.6

2.6

2.4

3.0

 

12

1.9

2.0

1.2

0.6

3.2

0.4

0

2.1

1.8

1.2

1.0

5.7

2.6

1.6

4.9

Same genes,

9

13.7

11.0

4.2

9.8

31.3

5.3

12

24.2

15.6

5.0

7.3

20.0

8.4

23.6

10.6

so it is no

10

5.5

8.5

1.2

7.9

21.1

2.9

4

11.6

14.7

2.4

7.3

17.8

3.2

6.8

4.9

problem

11

6.8

12.6

0.9

5.7

24.3

2.7

2

12.6

11.0

2.4

5.1

24.8

5.2

4.8

9.0

 

12

4.0

2.1

1.5

7.0

13.6

9.1

0

7.4

6.5

2.1

6.1

15.7

7.3

1.3

4.9

 

Table 4: Support for plant to plant and plant to animal gene transfer in 1993 and the year 2000

 

plant to plant

plant to animal

%

P93

P2000

S2000

P93

P2000

S2000

Yes

39.2

32.3

48.9

10.6

18.6

37.5

No

25.5

39.5

35.2

40.3

54.0

43.2

DK

35.3

28.2

15.8

49.1

27.4

19.3

 

Acceptance of enhancement genetic engineering on humans is higher in India and Thailand

           The sports fish is an example of genetic engineering for fun - and many people reject such genetic engineering (Table 1).   The highest degree of support for the sports fish is in the USA where 53% approved in a 1986 survey.  One of the most striking points of Table 1 is the high level of approval of this example in Thailand and India.  This trend was also seen in the Singapore and Hong Kong samples, and also reported in a student survey in China [5].  The general support for products of genetic engineering seems to be high, especially if they are claimed to be more healthy.  When specific details of an application were given there was generally greater acceptance, suggesting people have some discretion. People may approve applications if they see benefits, not only to themselves but also to the environment and other people.  It also suggests that if details are given the public will show greater acceptance of an application, seen also for human gene therapy compared to human gene manipulation in general [1,12,13].  This discretion has been called a measure of bioethical maturity of society [14].

            Support for specific applications of gene therapy was significantly less for "improving physical characters", "improving intelligence" or "making people more ethical" than for curing diseases like cancer or diabetes, except in India and Thailand (Table 5), but there was little difference between inheritable or non-inheritable gene therapy.  A significant preference for therapeutic (Q28abcd) over cosmetic (Q28ef) applications of gene therapy was also seen in the USA [9]. The year 2000 results in Japan show that significantly more public disagreed with the application of gene therapy to specific therapeutic cases than they did in 1993, and continued to reject enhancement applications [3].


            In India and Thailand more than 50% of the 900+ total respondents in each country supported enhancement of physical characters, intelligence, or making people more ethical.  It could suggest several things: that poor living standards and infectious disease make people more pragmatic about "improvement", or that people in those countries have not thought about the implications (even though they were relatively highly educated samples).  It is interesting if this is a general trend in developing countries, as it could have significant implications for international policy. 

            We should also note the results of a gene therapy question [2] on Chinese medical staff and students in 1993 found 73% "willing" for personal use and 80% "willing" for children's use [5].  The policy for avoiding births of handicapped persons in China, which many consider to be close to a social eugenics program to lower the proportion of handicapped babies born in the population, also suggests Chinese may follow this trend. In this survey, the largely Chinese populations of Singapore and Hong Kong biology students were intermediate between the industrialized countries of Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, and the USA, and Thailand and India, in their acceptance of enhancement (Table 5).  It is future question to more closely examine factors behind people's acceptance or rejection of enhancement, for example, how much culture, education, religion, familiarity with medicine, or living standards, influence this.  We can say that some people agree with enhancement, and the proportion is of concern to those who consider enhancement to be unethical [13].

 

Drop in support for human gene therapy also

         One medical application of genetic engineering that has been widely discussed is gene therapy. In the year 2000 in Japan a general question asking whether people would accept gene therapy in principle was asked, and the results are shown in Table 6, with comparisons to the 1991 and 1993 surveys [1,2].  They show little difference between the public and scientists.  The results were more similar to 1991 than to the 1993 sample, suggesting some decrease in public acceptance since 1993.  In particular scientists in 2000 were twice as more likely to say "very unwilling" compared to 1991. The reasons are being analyzed and will be discussed elsewhere.

 

Table 6: Acceptance of gene therapy

Q9. If tests showed that you were likely to get a serious or fatal genetic disease later in life, how willing would you be to undergo therapy to have those genes corrected before symptoms appear?

%

P91

P93

P2000

S91

S2000

F99

Very willing

25

42

24.0

25.4

27.5

40.8

Willing

29

24

23.7

28.1

25.6

32.4

Unwilling

18

15

21.6

15.6

14.2

5.6

Very unwilling

12

6

15.9

13.6

24.4

15.5

Don't know

16

13

14.8

17.3

8.3

5.6

 

         In the International Bioethics Survey, about three quarters of all samples supported personal use of gene therapy, with higher support for children's use of gene therapy [1,13].  The diversity of views was generally similar within each country.  The major reasons given were to save life and increase the quality of life.  About 5-7% rejected gene therapy considering it to be playing God, or unnatural.  There was very little concern about eugenics (0.5-2%), and more respondents gave supportive reasons like "improving genes", especially in Thailand and India.  This was also seen in questions for genetic screening [1].  In the open question on gene therapy up about 5% in all countries gave a reason like "improving genes", including Japan which was generally negative towards eugenic or economic reasons for genetic screening.  About 10% of Thai respondents gave "improving gene" reasons for gene therapy.  We use the term eugenics in a broad sense, meaning the idea that we should improve the frequency of "good genes", or decrease the frequency of disease-causing genes (alleles).  The fears of eugenics included both fears of social programs to enforce eugenics, and the idea that we should not alter gene frequency because it may affect the future of the human gene pool.  The comments in this survey suggests the main reasons for rejection of enhancement gene therapy are that it is seen as "unnatural", "Playing God", "unpredictable" or "unnecessary", rather than "eugenics". 

            About 10% of the respondents in this survey in Russia, and many in India also, gave eugenic reasons for support of genetic screening [1], significantly more than in the other countries.  If we combine this with the economic reasons, we find Australia, New Zealand and Thailand also show eugenic or economic reasons for supporting prenatal genetic screening, and we should note that one of the arguments of past eugenic movements has been the economic type.  Japanese showed the least support for this way of thinking. The opinions are divided, as typified by Thai respondents, which were the samples with the highest proportion of both "improving genes" and "playing God" comments about gene therapy.

            In general open questions on the benefits and risks of "genetic engineering", some eugenic concerns were expressed.  The same conclusion was made from different open questions on the benefits and risks of "human genetic manipulation" in the 1991 Japanese survey, and a 1990 New Zealand survey [2].  The more specific the question is the less eugenic concerns are expressed.   To most people the critical point is that genetics may offer hope to save life and improve the quality of life, and we even find positive support for eugenics in genetic screening or therapy is stronger than fears.  Those who argue against genetic medicine for eugenic reasons may not actually represent the public, when we consider the degree of support given for eugenics.  At the same time, the past history of eugenic abuses means that we need to educate about the dangers of misuse of compulsory eugenic programs.

 

Conclusions

         The people in all cultures were supportive of science and technology in general, and appeared to balance benefit and risk, showing discretion over the use of genetic engineering for enhancement, and realistic reasoning in responses to questions.  This conflicts with the commonly held position that the public is uneducated and naive about the application of biotechnology.  That claim is based on the argument that new technology presents novel choices - which is wrong, the choices themselves have existed before even if the means for effecting them were less efficient.  These glimpses into the public image of biotechnology provide much food for thought, but we recognize the image may change. 

            Although people have always faced risk, and at least in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, have faced technological forces which transform society, biotechnology has more critics than most.  These studies suggest many of the claims that critics make may not represent the views of ordinary people.  Perhaps this influence is no where stronger then in Europe, as seen in the controversy associated with the bans on the use of BST made by genetic engineering to boost milk production, and on the US situation where the FDA opposes labels on products associated with genetic engineering.  An educated public should assess the claims made by different groups, depending upon the trust they have in them, and may alter its views.  There is also the continuing debate over patenting policy.  These studies must be used responsibly, rather than just to allow better plans for the next line of commercials - public attitude making - rather than for seeing what the public has to say. 

            One thing that is likely to remain is the diversity of opinion and reasoning, something which makes these studies interesting. Any universal ethics must include some respect for informed choices of people, and the range of choices people desire is transcultural.  Policy should reflect the universality of diversity and reasoning.  The social consequences of biotechnology do depend on the society that we make - but they also depend on the people's attitudes, which are international.

            The data presented here suggest that there may be some significant differences in public opinion concerning biotechnology in India, Thailand (and China) which poses a dilemma for policy makers.  The widening international use of genetic technology makes us ask whether regulations should be national and or international, and whether different standards can be justified in different countries.  The call for international approaches (including education and guidelines) is based on several arguments, including shared biological heritage and destiny of human beings in all "nations", and the transitory nature of "nations" and the precedents for international law to protect common interests of humanity.  UNESCO and WHO have developed international guidelines for genetics research.  Those calling for national guidelines argue that each culture should make its own standards because of national autonomy, and because people in each country have different attitudes. Perhaps the key balancing issue is how divergent the perceptions and bioethical reasoning of peoples around the world are. Most surveys on biotechnology have ignored Asia, yet this region of the world is where half the people live.  The present study suggests that there may be some education-independent differences in attitudes to biotechnology in India and Thailand, and that further surveys should clarify these differences.

            There are at least three ways to think of the term bioethics, one is as descriptive bioethics - the way people view life and their moral interactions and responsibilities with living organisms in life.  Another is prescriptive bioethics - to tell others what is good or bad, what principles are most important; or to say something/someone has rights and therefore others have duties to them. Yet another is interactive bioethics, which requires debate and dialogue between people and cultures [15].  We need all types, and they may have many elements in common between cultures, but there needs to be investigation to provide support to answer whether universal prescriptions apply.  The question is actually more pressing within each society, where we find most of the diversity of opinion.  Education of biotechnology, and its benefits and risks should be offered to all, and it will be interesting to see how the introduction of new applications of biotechnology itself alters the values people have towards where the limits to what is natural are.  The lesson from Asia may be that what some in Europe see as the limit now is not what others in the world perceive.

 

References

Please note the references by Macer are available on-line on the Eubios Ethics Institute Internet site <http://eubios.info/index.html>.

 

1. Macer, D.R.J., Bioethics for the People by the People,  (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1994).

2. Macer, D.R.J. (1992).  Attitudes to Genetic Engineering: Japanese and International Comparisons. Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute.

3. Chen Ng, M.A., C. Takeda, T. Watanabe & D. Macer (2000), " Attitudes of the Public and Scientists to Biotechnology in Japan at the start of 2000", Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 106-13. See also: Macer, D.R.J., et al. "Attitudes to Biotechnology  Japan and New Zealand in 1997, with International Comparisons", Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 137-151.

4. Macer, D. & Chen Ng., M. "Changing attitudes to biotechnology in Japan", Nature Biotechnology 18 (2000), 945-7. 

5. Lo, W.H.Y., Han, S., Zhang, J. & Lee, J.L. (1994). A survey of people with higher education to genetics and diseases in Beijing, pp. 195-198 in N. Fujiki & D.R.J. Macer, eds., Intractable Neurological Disorders, Human Genome Research and Society. (Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, N.Z.).

6. Eurobarometer Survey 37.1, Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering: What Europeans Think about it in 1993 (Commission of the European Communities, Brussels 1994).

7. Gaskell, G et al. Europe ambivalent on biotechnology. Nature 387 (1997), 845-7.

8. Gaskell, G. et al.  "Biotechnology and the European public", Nature Biotechnology 18 (2000), 935-8.

9. OTA (1987) U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, New Developments in Biotechnology, 2: Public Perceptions of Biotechnology - Background Paper. Washington D.C.: U.S.G.P.O.

10. Hoban, T. J. & Kendall, P.A. (1992)  Consumer Attitudes About the Use of Biotechnology in Agriculture and Food Production.  Raleigh, N.C.  North Carolina State University; Hoban, T. J. 1997. Consumer acceptance of biotechnology: An international perspective. Nature Biotechnology 15: 232-234.

11. Priest, SH. "US public opinion divided over biotechnology?". Nature Biotechnology 18 (2000), 939-42; Einsiedel, EF. "Cloning and its discontents? a Canadian perspective", Nature Biotechnology 18 (2000), 943-4.

12. Macer, D. (1992).  "Public acceptance of human gene therapy and perceptions of human genetic manipulation." Human Gene Therapy 3: 511-8.

13. Macer, D.R.J., et al. (1995), "International perceptions and approval of gene therapy", Human Gene Therapy 6: 791-803.

14. Macer, D. (1993).  "Perception of risks and benefits of in vitro fertilization, genetic engineering and biotechnology", Social Science and Medicine 38 (1): 23-33.

15. Macer, D.R.J., Bioethics is Love of Life,  (Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institute, 1998).

 

 

Table 5 and Figure 1 follow on separate pages


Tables and Figures in separate files

 

Table 1: Approval of environmental release of GMOs

Q31. If there was no direct risk to humans and only very remote risks to the environment, would you approve or disapprove of the environmental use of genetically engineered organisms designed to produce...?  

Yes- Approve  No- Disapprove   DK Don't know

Table 2: Trust in authorities

Q29. Suppose that a number of groups made public statements about the benefits and risks of biotechnology products.  Would you have a lot of trust, some trust, or no trust in statements made by...?

 

Table 3: Acceptance of gene therapy  for specific cases

Q28. How do you feel about scientists changing the genetic makeup of human cells to:

 

Figure 1: Comparative perceptions of science developments in India, Japan, New Zealand and Thailand

The results are presented as bar graphs, with percentage of respondents who thought each development was worthwhile for their country (benefit) and the percentage of respondents who were worried about the impact of the developments (worry).

 

Macer, D.R.J.,  H. Bezar, N. Harman, H. Kamada, and N. Macer "Attitudes to Biotechnology in Japan and New Zealand in 1997, with International Comparisons", Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 137-151.

 


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