Policies of International Cooperation

Plant Biotechnology

Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458  
© 2003 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile  

Why are most Europeans opposed to GMOs?
Factors explaining rejection in France and Europe

Sylvie Bonny
INRA-ESR (National Institute of Agricultural Research)
UMR d'Economie Publique INRA-INAPG, BP 1
F- 78850 Grignon, France
E-mail: bonny@grignon.inra.fr

Keywords: agriculture, acceptance, opposition movement, risk/benefit balance, risk perception.

Acronyms and abbreviations:
ATTAC: Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens;
BSE: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy;
DNK/DK: Don’t know (in a survey);
EC: European Commission;
EU: European Union;
EU 15: The 15 Member States of the European Union in 2001: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, United Kingdom; Germany (new Länder): former East Germany - Germany (former Länder): former West Germany;
GM: Genetically Modified;
IFIC: International Food Information Council Foundation (USA);
IFOP: Institut français de l'opinion publique (French Institute of Public Opinion, a market research and opinion surveys Institute);
IPSOS: A polling institute;
LETS: Local Exchange trading Systems;
NGO: Non Governmental Organization.

BIP Article Reprint (PDF)

A strong movement of opposition to genetic engineering in agriculture has developed throughout the world, particularly in some countries of the European Union (EU). The movement has led to a moratorium in the EU and hostility towards imported genetically modified (GM) products, as well as to acts of open opposition. How can this strong hostility be explained when from the outset many institutions have presented biotechnology, including genetic engineering, in a highly positive light and still consider it highly promising? A better understanding of this opposition movement is useful, along with understanding its determinants, its grounds and its implications, especially since this hostility is sometimes misinterpreted.

The aim of this article is to present various factors and processes in the emergence and development of this opposition in France, a country in which the movement is particularly strong. We look at the French case, which is fairly representative of various European countries, though differences exist between them. Regarding quantitative data on attitudes towards GMOs, we drew on the results of a set of surveys, particularly the Eurobarometer surveys (organized and supervised by European Commission), which have been carried out several times in the 15 EU countries.

Strong opposition to GMOs in Europe and particularly in France

The results of some detailed public opinion surveys on GMOs in the USA and in the countries of the EU are set out because the USA and the EU are often considered to have opposing views on this issue.

In the USA, the IFIC (International Food Information Council) commissioned surveys on a sample of about 1,000 people in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. The IFIC surveys enabled a follow-up of opinion several years in a row because their surveys asked the same questions. With the examples of genetic modification proposed in the IFIC questionnaire, people showed more propensity to buy GM foods than reluctance, but that attitude declined a little between 1997 and 2002. The belief that biotechnology would be beneficial also diminished between 1997 and 2000, particularly in 1999, but tended to stabilize in 2001 and 2002.

In the EU, Eurobarometer surveys reveal growing skepticism regarding biotechnology. The most recent Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology was taken in spring 2001, on a sample of approximately 16,000 people. Its results showed a high level of mistrust of GMOs. Outright rejection ("I do not want this kind of food") was the attitude of 71%. As to whether "GMO-based food is dangerous", a majority (56%) believed that this proposition was true, as opposed to 17% who did not; however, more than a quarter of Europeans were uncertain (26.5% don't know”). Certain variations appeared; variations according to typical socio-demographic criteria (i.e., gender, age, education level, profession, income, etc.) appeared smaller than variations between countries where there was noticeable diversity in the EU. A few countries (Greece, France, Austria) appeared particularly hostile to GMOs, and some others (Netherlands, UK, Belgium) appeared more favorable, or less hostile.

The focus on potential risks and the extensive publicity given to risks

Many risks or negative effects suspected in a wide field

This paper provides an overview table, which establishes a typology of the risks, fears and reasons for refusal, on the basis of the subjects mentioned repeatedly in public or private debates, and articles and arguments against GMOs. Opposition to GMOs springs primarily from the perception of numerous risks in an extremely broad field — food safety and quality, health, the environment, the economy, society, biodiversity, geopolitics, ethics, and so on.

How negative views emerged and grew

When GMO issues were widely publicized as of late 1996, the confidence in institutions and certain technological advances had decreased. Indeed, public opinion was strongly marked by various issues, especially contaminated blood (HIV), Mad Cow disease, asbestos, and so on. These issues led to strong distrust and caused the public to believe that firms and public authorities sometimes disregarded health risks to protect economic or political interests. Afterwards, debate on GMOs (i.e., authorization, importation, labeling, impact, etc.) was still strongly influenced by food safety issues (i.e., BSE, listeriosis, etc.) that had been widely publicized. Furthermore, a movement grew that criticized excesses of the agricultural and food system when problems of pollution and safety came to the forefront. More and more often the media and the social debate took on a critical view of GMOs. Thus information about GMOs frequently has been and continues to be critical or negative.

The strong influence of associations that focus on risks

Growing attention has been paid to warnings by various organizations and their denunciation campaign against genetic engineering. In France, GMOs have been strongly opposed by various NGOs and associations: environmental organizations, the second-largest farmer’s union, anti-globalisation groups, and other NGOs focusing on economic or development issues. The impact of these organizations has been strong, owing to the dynamism of their action, which gave them extensively publicity: numerous strongly-worded press communiqués, the repeated mass dissemination of alerts and warnings, petitions, leaflets, standardized letters for elected representatives or agro-food firms, lawsuits, demonstrations, and so on. In particular, these groups took advantage of new communication technologies. Critics associated the opposition of these NGOs with worthy values: the need for caution when launching new technologies, the environment and public health protection, citizen participation in technological choices, etc. Organizations opposed to GMOs gained legitimacy, whereas companies involved in GM products were often seen as greedy and rapacious.

Behavior of other actors that publicized information on GMOs

Of course, many actors other than opposing organizations are involved in the GMO field, but their respective influence varies widely.

Publicity given to denunciation of GMOs has been noteworthy, particularly in a number of media. The media have played a significant part in making GMOs widely known and in highlighting their potential dangers, especially at the end of the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s.

On the other hand, the firms involved have often maintained a more traditional type of communication, strongly influenced by their usual clientele — the upstream Ag sector, not the public at large. Moreover, until 1997-98 these firms often underestimated suspicion of GMOs, considering that suspicion to be the product of irrational and residual fears that would disappear as more information became available.

Public research organizations have remained relatively silent on the subject, even though the media has frequently quoted some scientists — or people regarded as scientists — from diverse disciplines and with varying points of view. Scientists are perceived as divided, and these contradicting opinions on GMOs worry many consumers.

Public authorities displayed considerable hesitation and changed direction often in this domain. Public suspicion of GMOs was therefore strengthened.

Finally, GMOs have had few allies, supporters or backers that the public considered credible. When many influential actors, such as the media and opposing organizations, highlighted the risks of GMOs, hostility towards genetic engineering seemed to "stand to reason", simply because of information the public received or because of the ideological movement to which people felt closest.

A risk/benefit assessment of GMOs perceived as very unbalanced

One cause of European opposition to GMOs is that the advantage to agriculture and food production is often considered weak or non-existent, while the risks are considered substantial.

Advantages of GMOs judged weak by many

Opponents of genetic engineering presented it as a technology with high potential risks and no advantages except to the few firms that developed it. Consumers' and society's safety appeared to be sacrificed. On the other hand, arguments that tried to present the potential advantages of GMOs were often rejected because they were perceived as hypocritical. GMOs thus lacked supporters and allies in many European countries.

Factors involved in the perception of risk/benefit assessment

Concern about GMOs cannot simply be imputed to a lack of knowledge in biology. Various studies have enabled us to better understand how risk perception is determined. Research has shown that known or avoidable risks, such as smoking and driving, are more acceptable to the public than poorly known and unavoidable risks, such as radioactivity. The newness and associated uncertainties of GMOs, and the inability for the individual to avoid GMOs once adopted, put public skepticism squarely in the latter category. In addition, as far as biotech and transgenesis are concerned, usefulness, riskyness and moral acceptability must also be taken into account, as well as trust in the involved actors and institutions.

Diverse opposition to and concerns about the functioning of society and its evolution crystallized around GMOs

Limited trust in the institutions and firms involved

Public debate about genetic engineering continued throughout the period of worry about food safety, Ag pollution and Ag productivism, which increased concern about GMOs. The public perceived GMOs as another indication of deterioration in the agricultural sector, in terms of health and environmental hazards. The principle of precaution, therefore, became an omnipresent reference in the opponent's words, the media and the public debate.

GMOs – symbol of negatively perceived trends

Now, the opponents and a large part of the public perceive that GMOs strengthen the highly industrialized agriculture that is a target of much criticism in western Europe today, particularly in France. Industrialized agriculture is blamed for deteriorating food quality, damage to the environment, accelerated decrease of farms, and more. For some people, especially many activists, biotechnology also symbolizes the negative aspects of globalization and economic liberalism: destruction of local cultures and economies, growing trend of commodifying everything, and aggravated competition that is often seen as disloyal. For the general public, GMOs are perceived above all as hardly useful, unnatural and risky. This suspicion, along with limited trust in the institutions and firms concerned, often leads to the suggestion that greater participation of citizens in scientific and technological choices would be desirable.

Concluding Remarks

GMOs are the subject of strong hostility in France and in other European countries, particularly because their risk/benefit balance is perceived as very unfavorable and because the general public often lacks confidence in their promoters and the regulatory process. While many risks are suspected, the general public, and particularly consumers, consider any benefits nearly nonexistent, especially from the transgenic plants most commonly grown today. This suspicion is partly related to the context of their publicization. For a certain amount of people, GMOs seem to have become a symbol of many negative aspects of agricultural change and of global economic development, when in fact they are by no means the only forms or embodiment of that development. In other words, the criticism of GMOs could apply to many other products, which are spared the same opprobrium. GMOs therefore seem sometimes to play the role of the scapegoat. They are accused because they are perceived as having little utility, unlike many other products with identical characteristics. In addition their relationship to food and nature gives them a special place in human culture. Finally, GMOs are suspected in and of themselves, and not sufficiently in relation to the way in which they are used. Critics do not sufficiently take into account the fact that the impact of techniques depends on the way and conditions in which they are used, the purpose given to them, the orientation of their applications, and so on. In this context of high opposition, a change of attitude towards GMOs seems rather difficult to achieve in the EU, notably in France.

Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network 
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