Attitudes of Brazilian undergraduate students towards genetic engineering and genetically engineered products

- Ekkehard Hansen* and Laureni Aparecida Nascimento
Laboratório de Biotecnologia, Centro de Biociźncias e Biotecnologia,
Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense Darcy Ribeiro,
Avenida Alberto Lamego 2000, 28013-600 Campos dos Goytacazes-RJ, Brazil

*Corresponding author, E-mail: ekki@uenf.br

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 137-139.


Introduction

The formation of the public perception of science is a very complex process that is influenced by the contents of the information as well as by the way information is transmitted to the public. The role of communicators like journalists is of extreme importance (Sant'Ana e Valle, 1995). The acceptance by society of the introduction of novel technological processes depends on many intrinsic factors, like social, cultural, economic, religious and educational backgrounds of the individual, the group or the society. Furthermore, it is influenced by the comprehension of the real applicability of a new technology in response to the daily needs (Napolitano et al. 1998), and of perceivable risks associated with that technology.

Genetic engineering has become an indispensable tool for many areas of biological research and modern medicine where many applications have emerged, especially for disease prevention and treatment as well as food production. In a developing country like Brazil many services like healthcare for the entire population and food for everybody encounter infra-structural problems that are usually related to the lack of sufficient money. Whereas some argue that it is more of a political and distributional problem, others believe that a more efficient production that would make food and health care products more economical could solve the underlying problems.

Agriculture in developing countries has been transformed over the past years. A new, "doubly green revolution" that is yield increasing as well as environmentally sustainable (Serageldin, 1999) raises the possibility of providing sufficient food for the next decades. Emerging technologies, often now designed for native crops of the tropics and sub-tropics (Moffat, 1999), claim to cut prices for food and health care products, and as such are of special interest not only to the producers or providers but also for the population that is targeted. Especially in developing countries the yield increase using transgenic, pest resistant crops is very pronounced, because for economic or technical reasons the use of pesticides is not very widespread in non-transgenic plantations (Qaim and Zilberman, 2003). Products derived from genetic engineering are already commercially available in many parts of the world. They have caused general discussions in the societies, and forced many legislators to pass new laws regulating the use of genetic engineering and transgenic products. However, in most countries, broad discussions in the organized and non-organized society only started after the introduction of transgenic products, and after laws had been established.

The attitudes of consumers in Japan, Europe and the United States towards transgenic products have been the focus of various analyses (Ng et al., 2000; Gaskell et al., 1999); however, there are only isolated reports concerning the attitudes of the population in developing countries (Oda and Soares, 2000). Most of those countries are relative latecomers to the discussions of biosafety and bioproduct quality (Sant'Ana and Valle, 1995). In Brazil, genetic engineering is already used in the production of vaccines for humans and animals, whereas the commercial plantation of genetically engineered plants is still being disputed in the Brazilian Courts. Over the past years Brazilian society has taken some more interest in the subject, and the discussion is presented on television news and in national newspapers. Questions that are raised are essentially related to biosafety of transgenic products relative to the environment and the health of the consumer, and bioethical considerations related to transgenic organisms, especially animals.

To find out more about the attitudes of future consumers we wanted to analyse the attitudes of first-year undergraduate students at a Brazilian university regarding these issues. We considered that these students had had a reasonable secondary education and access to information via newspaper, television and internet.

Methodology

The survey was carried out at a State university in the less developed Northern region of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Universidade Estadual do Norte Fluminense Darcy Ribeiro). First year voluntary students of various courses in the natural sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and agricultural and veterinary sciences were presented with the questionnaire. Of 185 students asked 161 students responded to the questionnaire (87% response rate), and their identity was protected. The students had a higher than average educational background in Brazil as they had passed the university entry exams.

Questions and responses

Question 1: What do you think about the importance of the reduction of chemical reagents and pesticides in Brazilian agriculture?

80% very important - 17% important - 0.6% undecided - 2.5% not important

Question 2: Genetic engineering represents a new method for the creation of new products. Scientists can use genetic engineering of plants or animals with the intent to modify certain characteristics like size, colour, flavour, pest resistance etc. This is done through the insertion of a gene from a plant or animal into another plant or animal. Recently, scientists changed the quality of a tomato plant through genetic engineering. The new tomato fruit has a better texture and a longer shelf life. Following cautious analyses, some Governments and many scientists believe that this new tomato is safe. However, some scientists and some environmental groups are concerned and think that this tomato should not be commercialised.

Most people do not have much information about genetic engineering. We would like to know your opinion about the following questions:

a) Would you like to experiment tasting this new tomato?

31% yes - 49% undecided - 20% no - 0% no answer

b) Do you think that this tomato should be labelled identifying it as "transgenic"? Labelling would mean that every consumer could decide whether or not he wants to eat this tomato.

88% yes - 11% undecided - 1.2% no - 0.6% no answer

Question 3: Here we present some research examples that are carried out using genetic engineering. How do you consider the following projects and their future application?

a) A treatment that saves the lives of people with leukaemia (blood cancer).

94% very important - 4% important* - 1.2% undecided - 0% not important

b) A pill that diminishes blood pressure and reduces the risk of a heart attack.

84% very important - 14% important - 2% undecided - 0.6% not important

b) Coffee and sugarcane plants that are modified in order to resist insect pests.

54% very important - 40% important * - 4% undecided - 1.2% not important

*Sum of:

c) Healthier kitchen oil.

58% very important - 38% important - 3% undecided - 1.2% not important

*Sum of:

d) New vaccines to prevent human diseases.

90% very important - 8% important - 2% undecided - 0% not important

Question 4: Genetic engineering can have risks and benefits. Here we put several fears that some people have concerning genetic engineering. How do you feel about the following:

a) Genetically modified plants can spread in an uncontrolled way.

Response: 56% very concerned - 35% little concerned - 8.1% not concerned - 0.6% no answer

b) Genetically modified food might cause danger to human health.

77% very concerned - 19% little concerned - 3.1% not concerned - 0.6% no answer

c) The use of chemical reagents and pesticides in agriculture with non-transgenic plants.

87% very concerned - 10% little concerned - 2.5% not concerned -0.6% no answer

Question 5: The following questions want to know your position concerning genetically modified products:

a) Would you use clothes that are made from genetically modified cotton?

63% yes - 34% undecided - 2.5% no - 0.6% no answer

b) Would you eat meat with less fat produced through the use of genetic engineering?

40% yes - 51% undecided - 8.1% no - 1.2% no answer

c) Would you drink tastier beer produced through the employment of genetically modified yeast?

27% yes - 40% undecided - 32% no - 0.6% no answer

Question 6: General assessment of genetic engineering:

a) Considering the possible benefits and risks of genetic engineering: do you think the benefits are more important than the risks?

25% yes - 63% undecided - 11% no - 0.6% no answer

b) Do you consider genetic engineering as a technology that is anti-ethical or immoral?

3.2% yes - 19% undecided - 77% no - 1.2% no answer

Discussion

The first question (Q1) evaluated the attitude of the students towards an agricultural and food safety problem that was not related to genetically modified organisms in order to analyse the risk awareness of the interviewees. The students were asked what they thought about the reduction of the use of chemical reagents and pesticides in agriculture. 97% thought it to be "very important" or "important", whereas only 2.5% thought it was "not important". When asked about the importance of several research projects that involved genetic engineering and had the objective either to produce new medication and vaccines against severe diseases, or to produce healthier foodstuff or disease resistant agricultural plants, the overall attitude was very positive: in all cases more than 94% of the interviewees considered these projects as "very important" or "important" (Q3). Analysing differences in attitudes relative to human disease prevention and treatment products, as opposed to healthier foodstuff or resistant plants, we found, not surprisingly, that the vast majority considered the first group as "very important" (Q3a: 94%; Q3b: 84%; Q3e: 90%), whereas the "very important" answer dropped below the 60% mark for the second group (Q3c: 54%; Q3d: 58%) with an compensating increase in the "important" answer. These overall results demonstrate that the interviewees were in clear favour of research involving genetic engineering when the research objective was to provide a healthier life.

Questions related to personal acceptance, in the sense of choosing transgenic products, varied depending on the use of the product. When asked whether the individual would use clothes made from genetically modified cotton, the great majority answered "yes" (63%), only a small minority answered "no" (2.5%), and the "undecided" response was chosen by 34% (Q5a). These results contradicted those obtained when students were asked about transgenic products for personal ingestion where the results showed an even higher level of indecision. The healthier meat question ("would you eat meat with less fat produced through the use of genetic engineering") had a high percentage of "undecided" answers (51%), followed by a fairly high acceptance (40%) and low rejection (8%) (Q5b). A similar question about genetically engineered tomatoes with higher resistance towards pest ("Would you like to experiment this new tomato?", Q2a) was put to the students. The rejection rate was significantly higher (20% "no"), the percentage of "undecided" responses similar (49%), and the acceptance rate lower (31% "yes") than in the healthier meat question. In contrast, "tastier beer" derived from transgenic organisms had a relatively high rejection (32%) and lower acceptance (27%) rate, again, however, surpassed by a very high percentage of indecision (40%) (Q5c).

These results suggest that rejection increases when transgenic products are for human consumption. It decreases, however, as soon as products derived from genetic engineering technology are related to health improvement. It appears that the reason behind the transgenic modification influenced directly the acceptance rate by the consumer: transgenic products that were better for health (less fatty meat) had best acceptance, followed by products that were better for the environment (pest resistant tomato); products that only tasted better (tastier beer) had a low acceptance rate. The results demonstrate also, however, the high insecurity and indecision in relation to transgenic products when a personal choice has to be made. The technology was considered as "anti-ethical" or "immoral" by only 3.2% of respondents, and not so by 77% (Q6b). However, balancing the benefits and risks related to this technology was more difficult: 63% were "undecided" whether the benefits were more important than the risks, 25% thought the benefits were more important, and 11.3% that they were not (Q9a). The results indicate also that the students wanted to keep their options open, and were clearly in favour of full information. 88% wanted the transgenic product to be labelled; only 10.6% were undecided and 1.2% opposed labelling (Q2b).

It was interesting to note that the students were aware of possible risks of current, non-transgenic agricultural practices, and even rated them as more worrying than possible risks from transgenic plants in agriculture. 56% of the interviewees were very concerned that genetically modified plants could spread in an uncontrolled way (Q4a), and 77% that genetically modified food might cause danger to human health (Q4b). However, significantly more students (87%) (Q4c)) were very concerned about the use of chemical reagents and pesticides in agriculture with non-transgenic plants. This demonstrates that the perceived risk from transgenic plants or foodstuff is not necessarily higher than the perceived risk from current agricultural practices.

When comparing attitudes of Brazilian students with those of US, Asian or Oceanian students (Hoban and Kedall, 1992; Macer, 1994), the most striking difference we found was the high level of indecision in the Brazilian students when it came to the acceptance of transgenic products for personal ingestion. This might be related to a certain distrust of the Brazilian population into the efficiency of Government food-surveillance activities. In an earlier study, Oda and Soares (2000) found that most interviewees qualified Government food-surveillance as weak (63%), and only 3% regarded the controls as efficient.

References
Gaskell, G., Bauer, M.W., Durant, J. & Allum, N.C. (1999) Worlds apart? The reception of genetically modified foods in Europe and the U.S. Science 285, 384-387.
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.
Macer, D.R.J. (1994) Bioethics for the people by the people. Eubios Ethics Institute, Christchurch, New Zealand.
Moffat, A.S. (1999) Crop engineering goes South. Science 285, 370.
Napolitano, C.L. & Ogunseitan, O.A. (1999) Gender differences in the perception of genetic engineering applied to human reproduction. Social Indicat. Res. 46, 191-204.
Ng, M.A.C, Takeda, C., Watanabe, T. & Macer, D. (2000) Attitudes of the public and scientists to Biotechnology in Japan at the start of 2000. Eubios J. Asian Int. Bioethics 10, 106-113.
Oda, L.M. & Soares, B.E.C. (2000) Genetically modified foods: economic aspects and public acceptance in Brazil. Trends Biotechnol. 18, 188-190.
Qaim, M. & Zilberman, D. (2003) Yield effects of genetically modified crops in developing countries. Science 299, 900-902.
Sant'Ana, A. & Valle, S. (1995) Public perception of biotechnology: problems in the Third World. Trends Biotechnol. 13, 126-127.
Serageldin, I. (1999) Biotechnology and food security in the 21st century. Science 258. 387-389


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