Biotechnology remains a mystery for many Canadians

Researchers found that most of the people who were surveyed struggled to give examples of biotechnology used in agriculture. | File photo

Canadians “generally do not have a solid understanding of what exactly the term ‘biotechnology’ refers to,” according to recently released public opinion research collected by Nielsen Consumer Insights on behalf of Agriculture Canada.

In July 2016, the department issued a contract asking Nielsen Consumer Insights to conduct a “comprehensive research project to measure Canadian consumers perceptions and attitudes towards issues related to domestic agriculture and agri-food.”

The research would help provide insight while developing the next agriculture policy framework, which comes into force in 2018. The data was collected via a series of focus groups, telephone calls and online consultations.

Overall, researchers found 88 percent of those surveyed have a “generally positive or neutral” view of biotechnology.

“Canadians generally feel that biotechnology will have a positive impact on their future, placing it near the top of a selection of new and emerging technologies in terms of this promise,” researchers told Agriculture Canada.

However, Canadian knowledge and view on specific forms of biotechnology varies widely.

Researchers found that most of the people who were surveyed struggled to give examples of biotechnology used in agriculture. Participants typically offered up examples used within the medical and health care fields, such as stem cells, antibiotics and robotics.

“The association of the term ‘biotechnology’ with health applications may be an indication that it is profiting from a halo effect,” re-searchers warned.

“This could lead to people feeling that biotechnology is positive because the applications that they associate with it promote human well-being.”

Researchers reported an aversion to applications of biotechnology that consumers felt had “the potential to upset the “natural order”’ or would allow scientists to “play god.”

“The closer the application could be seen in terms of living, breathing organisms, the more resistance there was to the specific applications,” such as genetically modified animals.

Researchers found less than half (46 percent) of the Canadians surveyed were familiar with the concept of GM animals, which has dropped from previous years.

Canadians weren’t particularly comfortable with the idea. Many within the focus groups raised “moral or ethical concerns about it.”

“People were much more likely to see the potential risks of GM animals as outweighing the benefits than they were likely to see with other technologies,” the report reads.

Those technologies include biofuel, gene editing and genetically modified fish, including fish that could be used to produce insulin for diabetic human patients.

Despite specific consumer concerns around certain applications, researchers found Canadians have not rejected biotechnology all together.

Consumer opinions are built based on the specific use presented and individual knowledge of that particular form of biotechnology, researchers said.

“In other words, there does not appear to be a blanket approval or rejection of biotechnologies themselves.”

That’s good news for Canadian agriculture, where participants stressed Canada could easily be-come a world leader in the agriculture and food biotechnology re-search field. That conviction, researchers found, is increasing as more attention is paid to it.

“It is possible that this is due to the growing role that these technologies are playing in our food supply and a higher level of media attention,” Agriculture Canada was told.

“Similarly, people agree that these technologies will be developed elsewhere in the world where regulations and control may be less stringent,” the report said, which is a situation Canadians said they would like to avoid. The federal government, respondents said, has an “important role to play” in the biotechnology field.

Over the course of the study, 875 Canadians were contacted last year by phone between Aug. 31 and Sept. 17 and Dec. 1-13. The phone portion of the research has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percent.

Another 220 Canadians participated in the online survey, and 10 focus groups were held, with two meetings each in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax and Calgary.

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