Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org : September 15, 2005
* FAO Warns World Cannot Afford Hunger
* India: GM Loses Sheen
* In Our Own Hands: Why Nations Respond Differently to Biotech?
* .... Better the Devil You Grow?
* .... Political Science - Dilemmas Posed by Developments in Biotech
* Expertise, Trust, and Communication about Food Biotechnology
FAO Warns World Cannot Afford Hunger
- UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Sep. 15, 2005 http://www.fao.org/
NEW YORK/ROME - As world leaders met at the UN Summit in New York,
the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today called on the
international community to honour commitments to cut world hunger in
half by 2015.
The Rome-based food agency urged governments and private sector
corporations to "adequately fund actions and initiatives that reduce
hunger through rural development and reduction of rural poverty,
while at the same time strengthening direct access to food by the
Mobilizing resources to halve world hunger
In a publication on mobilizing resources to reduce hunger that FAO
issued for the UN Summit, the organization warned: "It is
unacceptable that 843 million people in developing and transition
countries continue to be hungry and that more than 1 billion have to
live on less than 1 dollar a day."
Unfortunately, says FAO, the rate at which hunger is being reduced is
painfully slow, "slower than what is required to meet the World Food
Summit goal, especially in Africa."
At the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, Italy, leaders from 186
countries pledged to reduce the number of hungry people in the world
by half no later than the year 2015.
According to FAO, to reduce hunger it is essential that a larger
share of new development funding be allocated to agriculture and
rural development than in past decades. The vast majority of the
world's poor live in rural areas and research shows that agricultural
growth, especially if focused on small farmers, is the most important
engine for the creation of employment and income for the poor.
Agriculture is practised by farmers, not governments
The low level of public expenditure in national budgets and the
long-term decline in official development assistance for agriculture
and rural development in developing countries are totally at odds
with the importance of agriculture in national economies, especially
for the poorest countries which depend on agriculture, FAO's report
According to FAO, private investment is the key for total capital
formation in agriculture and it is the responsibility of governments
to make this possible through research, public investment regulation,
financial incentives, and by building capacity.
"Agriculture is practised by farmers, not by governments," the
Organization's report said. But inadequate public funding for
essential public goods such as infrastructure, research and capacity
building, and extension and market development has resulted in
disincentives to private-sector activity and investment, the document
Promising signs for the future
FAO, with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the
World Food Programme, jointly produced another paper being circulated
at the UN Summit - Eradication of poverty and hunger - that outlines
a concise strategy to meet the first Millennium Development Goal
(MDG) on hunger and poverty reduction.
FAO said there are "encouraging signs" of a strengthening of resolve
to reduce poverty and hunger and meet the MDGs. For example, the
recent decision by African countries to increase the share of
national spending on agriculture and rural development to 10 percent
is "a most encouraging step toward overcoming public underfunding of
the agriculture sector," the Organization said.
Also, many donor countries are pledging a substantial increase in
development assistance. FAO cites the promise by the countries of the
European Union to double official development assistance and the debt
cancellation announced by the G8 concerning 18 of the world's poorest
India: GM Loses Sheen
- Business Standard (New Delhi) August 23, 2005
Biotechnology companies are reported to be losing interest in
committing fresh investments in evolving new genetically modified
(GM) seeds. This is borne out by the perceptible decline in the
number of such new products offered for field trials and approval in
most countries, including the US which has been the global leader in
This is cause for both surprise and concern. The about-turn in the
mood on GM seeds has come about despite rapid expansion in the aceage
under GM crops globally, and the equally rapid erosion in consumer
resistance to these products--regardless of the relentless
campaigning by anti-GM lobbyists.
It is also disquieting because the benefits of this technology for
the agriculture sector will remain under-tapped if the GM crop
pipeline dries up. Last year alone, the acreage devoted to GM crops
in the world is estimated to have grown by 20 per cent. Indeed, the
total land under these crops has witnessed a nearly 47-fold expansion
since commercialisation began in 1996.
Though India is a late starter, the growth in the popularity of
Bt-cotton, the only GM crop to have so far been commercialised here,
has been substantial. Unconfirmed estimates put the area under
Bt-cotton in 2004 at around 500,000 hectares, against merely 100,000
hectares a year earlier. Even European countries, which have been
ultra-suspicious about these crops so far, too, are believed to be
softening their stand.
One reason for the downturn in research on GM seeds could be the
protracted and cumbersome procedure for getting approval for the
commercialisation of GM crops developed at massive cost. Most
companies can ill afford to lock in such huge investments for very
Besides, they have to cope with the anti-GM campaign. As a result,
the commercial exploitation of GM technology has remained confined to
a few crops, notably cotton, maize, soyabean and rapeseed. India is
In fact, the GM crop approval procedure here is far more exhaustive
and time-consuming than in most other countries. This acts as a
deterrent for biotechnology companies coming to India and investing
in crops of interest to local farmers.
What is worse, the GM seeds of several crops developed by the public
sector agricultural research system in India have remained confined
to their laboratories and experimental farms. As such, Indian farmers
are being denied the advantages that could have accrued to them by
way of enhanced crop yields and lower spending on pesticides.
What is needed is a thorough review of GM crop approval procedures.
Caution cannot be set aside, especially in the case of transgenic
seeds, where alien genes from non-plant sources (such as Bt gene from
soil bacteria) are incorporated into a crop. But once a gene has been
proved harmless for the environment and for health, in India or
elsewhere, its use in other crops or varieties need not be subjected
to further prolonged and rigorous testing.
Besides, the approval granting authority should vest with the
agriculture ministry, which controls the farm research network,
rather than the environment ministry, which has no expertise in
either plant breeding or biotechnology.
Otherwise, genetically-engineered products like the Vitamin
A-incorporated 'golden rice' might never become accessible to the
Indian poor, large numbers of whom face the risk of blindness due to
Vitamin A deficiency.
In Our Own Hands
- Mark Cantley, Nature 437, 193-194; September 8, 2005. www.nature.com
'Biotechnology is changing the world, but why do nations respond so
'BOOK REVIEWED: Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe
and the United States by Sheila Jasanoff; Princeton University Press:
2005. 344 pp. $35, £22.95'
Biotechnology, like that valuable animal the scapegoat, is a beast
destined, or chosen, to bear many burdens. But is this fate deserved?
The perception -- widespread in Europe -- that biotechnology is
something fundamentally new, like the discovery of electricity, or
akin to black magic, is unfortunate. It has led to the assumption
that there are technology-specific risks requiring ad hoc regulations
and associated bureaucracies, and to consequent conflicts with
sectoral regulations, as well as to international trade disputes. But
not for the first time, perceptions, laws and the course of societal
development may be driven by delusion. It was, after all, the
scientists themselves who in 1974 proposed and accepted a moratorium
on certain experiments, and the following year held the widely
publicized international conference at Asilomar in California to
discuss the conjectural risks of recombinant DNA.
Sheila Jasanoff has written a carefully structured, ambitious and
timely book, Designs on Nature, about the evolution of public policy
on biotechnology over the past three decades in the United States,
Germany, Britain and the European Union (EU), and uses this as a
basis for broader conclusions. Her central idea is correct: policy
arguments about biotechnology have been hijacked to serve other
agendas. Opponents of multinational corporations, of the
industrialization of agriculture, of US policy and of globalization
have found common cause with environment ministries that seek to
enlarge their powers, and with non-governmental organizations that
translate GMO as 'Greenpeace membership opportunity': they all have
reasons to demonize biotechnology.
Scientists invited to public or government-sponsored forums on
biotechnology soon found that the skills they needed were more akin
to mud-wrestling; their expertise and experience were considered
disqualifications. As in her earlier work, Jasanoff disputes that the
supposedly neutral, objective, value-free process called science can
be separated from the social and political matrices in which it is
embedded. Rather, she emphasizes "the constructed and value-laden
character of scientific knowledge", and asks whether science will
lose its ability to serve either state or society as a source of
impartial critical authority.
Jasanoff has read widely, has broad awareness and has spoken to many
people in the countries she discusses. She marshals her information
carefully, using a comparative approach to illustrate how similar
challenges to public policy-makers in these countries were handled
differently, in ways that reflect long-standing differences in their
political cultures. She focuses on "civic epistemology, the
institutionalized practices by which members of a given society test
and deploy knowledge claims used as a basis for making collective
The book has weaknesses, however. The author, a lawyer and policy
analyst rather than a scientist or historian, makes numerous errors,
not all of them minor. Crick and Watson were not working at Cambridge
University, and their Nobel was not for "cracking the genetic code".
Legislation such as the EU directive on biotechnology patents, which
Jasanoff discusses at length, was adopted by co-decision of the
European Parliament and the Council of Ministers -- not the European
Commission, whose constitutional position in such legislation is
restricted to drafting the proposals.
Jasanoff's use of historical evidence appears selective, and some of
the omissions are eloquent counter-testimony to her thesis.
Assertions about the separateness of the regulatory debates in the
three countries (and the EU) are contradicted by several years of
expert debate at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD), which culminated in the much-cited report
Recombinant DNA Safety Considerations (OECD, Paris, 1986) and
unanimous Council Recommendation recognizing "that there is no
scientific basis for specific legislation to regulate the use of
recombinant DNA organisms".
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was close bilateral dialogue
between key players in the US administration and the European
Commission, with direct consequences for the 1982 Council
Recommendation on recombinant DNA. Similarly, she discusses the
concept of "substantial equivalence" in the context of genetically
modified food regulation, but again without reference to the OECD
debate and report Safety Evaluation of Foods derived by Modern
Biotechnology (OECD, Paris, 1993), which popularized the use of this
The author's perspective on societal learning processes fails to
acknowledge their dynamic character. She notes that "as biotechnology
inexorably moved from the cloistered scientific laboratory to the
competitive marketplace, it became clear that the post-Asilomar
settlement could not continue unamended". Yet she describes as an
"about-face" what others might say were rational responses to the
progress of knowledge and the accumulation of experience.
One might dispute Jasanoff's assertion that there "was no storehouse
of precedents that policymakers could reach into for historically
documented evidence concerning the widespread use of
laboratory-crafted organisms". Modern biotechnology brings precision,
but no fundamental change, to the long-standing practices of
selective breeding and random mutagenesis, which had been used in the
fermentation and seed industries for many decades before the debates
on recombinant DNA.
Jasanoff's thesis rests on stronger ground when she turns to the
ethical impacts of modern biotechnology and genomics, and the
differing national responses, which she discusses and compares in
detail: "Genetic engineering transgresses some of the most deeply
entrenched categories of western thought... Designs on nature -- once
thought to be the prerogative only of a divine creator -- seem now
well within the reach of human capability," she writes. The
"controlling narratives" that framed the course of policy development
include not only a novel process for intervening in nature, and a
source of new products, but "a state-sponsored program of
standardization and control carrying profound implications for human
dignity and freedom, and raising questions of constitutional
significance". Given the profundity of the challenges thus brought
into public and policy debates, democratic theory in the era of the
knowledge society must take on board the involvement of citizens in
the production, use and interpretation of knowledge for public
She offers three main conclusions. First, that core concepts of
democracy such as citizenship and accountability cannot be
satisfactorily understood without considering the politics of science
and technology. Second, that in all three countries (and the EU),
policies for the life sciences have been incorporated into
'nation-building' projects that seek to reimagine what the nation (or
Europe) stands for. Third, that political culture matters to
democratic culture, and works through the institutionalized ways in
which citizens understand and evaluate public knowledge. These three
aspects of contemporary politics help account not only for policy
divergences between nations, but also for the perceived legitimacy of
These conclusions are well supported, and useful not least for
indicating why scientific, industrial or other communities have found
it difficult to influence policy. So the book succeeds in its aims.
The policy debates have served to crystallize the emergence of a
European polity and self-awareness. But the reader is left wondering:
what if these high policy debates are founded on misperceptions,
which they reinforce?
Mark Cantley is adviser, Research Directorate-General of the European
Commission, on Biotechnology, Agriculture and Food.
Better the Devil You Grow?
- Calestous Juma, New Scientist, Sept. 10, 2005
'When the great debates in biotechnology are being driven by vested
interests, it's no wonder growers around the world are so wary of the
industry's promises, says Calestous Juma'
"Designs on Nature: Science and democracy in Europe and the United
States by Sheila Jasanoff (Princeton; £22.95/$35; 0691118116)"
To the casual observer, French farmers might seem to have little in
common with Californian vine growers. They operate on different
continents and in different political and, arguably, moral
environments. But both groups exist in societies that have benefited
from rapid advances in technology in the last century. And despite
this, both are united in scepticism of the benefits that the
biotechnology industry can offer.
Their concerns are a snapshot of a broader phenomenon - how societies
from very different parts of the world are wrestling with the social,
moral and economic issues generated by advances in biotechnology, and
how these advances are, in turn, shaping the societies themselves.
The result is the emergence of a new "biosociety".
Designs on Nature by Sheila Jasanoff, professor of science and
technology studies at Harvard University, is a bold attempt to map
the contours of this new society and to show how it is being shaped
by the life sciences. In a detailed study of Europe and the US,
Jasanoff demonstrates how advances in biotechnology are tightly
intertwined with political processes.
In situations of flux, however, it is as important to study the
sources of change as it is to understand the political context in
which it happens. In the case of biotechnology, the industry
co-evolved with globalisation. The enhanced mobility of people, goods
and ideas; better connectivity through communications technologies;
and greater economic interdependence through global trading networks:
each has played a part in influencing its spread.
But the initial policies that shaped the industry were influenced
largely by the desire of countries to use the emerging technology to
increase their competitiveness in the global marketplace. As a
result, most of the debate on biotechnology has been influenced by
perception of the socio-economic benefits and risks involved. Human
health, the environment and ethical values have been mere footnotes.
Countries or communities that perceive short-term loss and long-term
gain are more likely to erect barriers to the new technologies.
Conversely, countries that envisage immediate benefits are likely to
make radical changes in their institutions to help their products
onto the global market.
Much of the evolution of biotechnology can therefore be explained in
terms of technological incumbency and the desires of less developed
countries to catch up with richer ones. The European Union, for
example, has invested heavily in an agricultural system that it seeks
to protect for a variety of reasons, such as protecting local jobs.
It is no surprise that new technologies that could undermine
traditional methods of agriculture are perceived in Europe as risky.
Developing countries focus on different kinds of risks: those
associated with technological exclusion. For example, the increased
use of intellectual property rights is in conflict with the
technological aspirations of developing countries. Their response has
been to oppose products that are covered by strictly enforced
intellectual property rights.
History has some lessons to offer as well. The introduction of
margarine, a French innovation, was viciously opposed by the US dairy
industry for socio-economic reasons for nearly five decades until the
late 1940s, with a greater passion than that of the French opposition
to genetically modified products. And it's not hard to extrapolate
from these examples to future trends. For example, countries such as
South Korea that are at the forefront of stem cell research are
likely to press ahead with these new ttechnologies while others such
as the US fall behind.
The study of the biosociety represents a new line of intellectual
enquiry that will help society redefine its relationship with nature
in fundamental ways. Designs on Nature is a strong sign that the
field is maturing and that a clearer picture of the emerging
biosociety is starting to form.
Calestous Juma is professor of the practice of international
development at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of
Government, and co-chair of the African Union's African Panel on
Political Science - A Challenging Exploration of the Dilemmas Posed
by Developments in Biotechnology
- James Wilsdon, Financial Times, September 10, 2005
'Designs on Nature: Science and Democracy in Europe and the United
States by Sheila Jasanoff (Princeton University Press £ 22.95, 374
Science and politics have an uneasy relationship at the best of
times. Negotiations between them often take place out of view - in
the corridors of Whitehall or the dry workings of expert committees.
Now and then, particular developments spark controversy or become
condensation points for a wider set of public concerns.
Since the 1980s, information technology and biotechnology have been
two of the most potent sites of innovation. Rapid advances in both
these domains - from the internet and mobile telephony to genetic
modification and stem cell biology - have been accompanied by intense
debates about their implications for human identity, equality and
Yet while the internet has also become fertile terrain for social and
political theory - most notably in the influential writings of Manuel
Castells - the dilemmas posed by biotechnology are in large part the
preserve of philosophy and theology. More than 50 years after Watson
and Crick's groundbreaking discovery, the politics of DNA remain far
less discernible to us than the politics of cyberspace. The rise of
"bioethics" as a discipline has shunted fundamental questions about
the visions and values that shape biotechnology into the realm of
private morality and individual choice.
All of which makes Designs on Nature an important book. Sheila
Jasanoff, professor of science and technology studies at Harvard
University, provides us for the first time with a vivid and
compelling account of the politics of biotechnology. By comparing
developments in Britain, Germany and the US, Jasanoff argues that we
can no longer make sense of concepts such as democracy or citizenship
without reference to the life sciences. "Will continued advances,"
she asks, " ...produce a new genetic underclass, and will they
simultaneously increase the state's already immense power to define,
classify and regulate life itself?"
From its arresting opening - "On a somber fall weekend in mid-
November 2001, Europe was forming in the oddest of places" - the book
makes a persuasive case for the role that science and technology now
play in projects of nation-building. This is perhaps most visible in
Germany, where debates over biotechnology, haunted by memories of
Nazi eugenics, have been caught up in the unfinished task of
reconstituting national identity. In Britain, in a very different
context, science and innovation have become emblematic of New
Labour's modernising zeal. And in the US, global leadership in
technology forms part of a wider ideology uof deregulation and market
Through a subtle analysis of the interplay between science and
democracy in these three countries, Jasanoff rejects simple
generalisations about Europe and the US, such as those made by Robert
Kagan in his essay "Of Paradise and Power". Instead of pretending,
that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus", or that
Americans are gung-ho about GM foods while Europeans are squeamish,
we should recognise that "clashes are endemic both within and between
these cultures, particularly in relation to scientific and
Distinctions between agricultural and medical biotechnology need to
be viewed through a similarly fine lens. In both cases, innovation
promised new forms of economic and social progress. But whereas the
pace of commercialisation in agricultural biotechnology ran ahead of
politics and regulation - contributing to the arguments in Europe
over GM crops and foods - in the medical realm, biotechnologies "were
burdened by almost a surfeit of public soul- searching".
The most recent trigger for such reflection has been stem cell
research, which is thought to have enormous potential in treating
diseases that require cell regeneration, such as Parkinson's,
Alzheimer's and kidney failure. The pros and cons of using stem cells
from human embryos became a flashpoint in the 2004 US presidential
elections, promoted in part by the death of the actor Christopher
Reeve - a passionate advocate of such research - just a month before
polling day. Jasanoff describes how these debateus have played out in
the US and Europe, and uses them to illustrate the limitations of
bioethics as a framework for policymaking, arguing that this squeezes
out more meaningful forms of public deliberation.
Jasanoff interrogates the distinction between "basic" and "applied"
research, which she argues no longer holds in a world where "the
production and uses of science are tied to each other, as well as to
surrounding social and political institutions". She explores how
closer links between academia and industry threaten to undermine
efforts to make science more accountable. In the US, the Bayh-Dole
Act, passed by Congress in 1980, changed the longstanding presumption
that publicly funded research could not be privately owned. This
promoted the commercialisation of research: between 1979 and 1997,
the number of university-held patents rose tenfold. But, Jasanoff
explains, it also "transformed the intellectual landscape of the
American academy, converting high-powered university labs into de
facto incubators for industry". The technology-transfer offices of
many universities developed an aggressive, profit-seeking culture,
and the secrecy of many research agreements with corporate sponsors
"dealt a body blow to the core academic virtue of openness".
In the closing section of the book, Jasanoff weaves these strands
into a powerful argument for democratising science. She dismisses
suggestions that the dilemmas posed by biotechnology can be easily
resolved through scientific education or better public understanding.
Reducing these debates to binary differences between experts and
laypeople "erases history, neglects culture, and privileges people's
knowledge of isolated facts... over their mastery of more complex
frames of meaning". People may not possess "expert" knowledge, as
traditionally defined, but this does not mean that they have nothing
to contribute to decisions about science and technology.
Designs on Nature manages to communicate the results of sustained
scholarship in a lively and engaging style, and should be required
reading for anyone interested in the social dynamics of innovation.
Jasanoff's achievement is to equip us with the critical tools
necessary to imagine a new way of doing science. She reminds us of
the need to talk, and sometimes to argue, about the scientific and
technological choices that confront us. In science, as in politics,
this process of inquiry, debate and learning ius endless. Whether it
is the prospect of a new generation of nuclear power stations, the
convergence between nano and biotechnologies, or novel forms of human
enhancement, our capacity for innovation will continue to present us
with dilemmas as well as opportunities. We need to recognise that we
rely on this constant questioning. Instead of shrinking from
innovation for fear of the uncertainty that accompanies it, we should
work to create the conditions for science and technology to thrive.
But the simultauneous challenge is to generate new approaches to the
governance of science that can learn from past mistakes, cope more
readily with social complexity, and harness technological change for
the common good.
James Wilsdon is head of science and innovation at the think-tank Demos.
Expertise, Trust, and Communication about Food Biotechnology
- William K. Hallman, Karen M. O'Neill, John T. Lang (Rutgers
University). Food and Beverage Journal, September 2005 . Full article
Experts typically presume to speak with authority about complex
concerns, such as agricultural biotechnology. Research indicates,
however, that the effectiveness of risk communication depends on
perceptions about the trustworthiness of the institutions and experts
providing information. This article explores how experts from a range
of food-associated professions and institutions perceive their own
roles in communicating about biotechnology. Most of the respondents
rated scientists and other experts are most likely to tell the truth
about biotechnology, but many felt that members of the public were
most influenced by the mass media and by critics of biotechnology.
In the United States, bioengineered grains are prevalent in the food
supply, but bioengineering remains poorly understood by the public.
Scientists and other experts with a stake in food technology have
often suggested that public fears about bioengineering would be
overcome if members of the public were given more information.
Although there is some empirical support for this belief, a careful
review of the existing literature finds the relationship between
knowledge and approval of genetically modified (GM) food to be weak
and the direction ambiguous. Moreover, communication about risk
involves more than simply transmitting scientific information, and
communicators need to consider organizational, contextual, and
situational factors that shape reactions to perceived risks.
In studies of reactions to risks, scholars increasingly cite the
importance of trust in institutions and experts. Studies of the
general population in the United States and Europe show that trust in
information about genetically modified foods depends on the source.
For example, large-scale survey research in the European Union
indicates higher public confidence in doctors, university scientists,
and non-governmental organizations (e.g., consumer and environmental
organizations) than in governmental actors. Similar rankings are
found in a survey of American consumers.
Most of the existing research on hazard-related trust focuses on the
trust ordinary people invests in elites and experts. There are
undoubtedly several reasons for this, from theoretical imperatives to
the methodological truism that ordinary people are more numerous and
often easier to recruit into studies than elites. But this focus
presents certain problems for both theory and practice. Ultimately,
the sources these experts rely on and endorse as trustworthy have an
advantage in influencing consumer opinion. So, who are the experts'
experts? And whom do the experts present to the public as trustworthy?
Expertise, Technology, and Trust
One goal of this research is to consider how experts assess their own
roles in debates about food biotechnology. Although the term expert
includes a variety of actors, expertise in the United States usually
centers on scientists and members of the professions. Scientists and
professionals construct their authority in a given realm by applying
specific methods of inquiry, by restricting entry to their profession
through educational and testing requirements, and by creating
ideologies that justify their professional methods and goals.
For a time in the United States, scientists who developed
biotechnology techniques presumed to speak as the chief experts on
food biotechnology (Priest, 2001). Hannigan argues that the apparent
acceptance of biotechnology by food scientists in the United States
meant that few experts acted as public critics of this technology
during its early years. More recently, a variety of critics have
emerged to question the now well-established use of bioengineered
products. Under these circumstances, the roles of experts have become
more complicated. Given this, we propose two possible types of
responses, one asserting the authority of experts and another
expressing the idea that experts should work to de-mystify the
technology for the public and to earn the public's trust.
Although researchers have documented a general decline in the
privileged position of scientists and professionals, it is also true
that some experts have managed better than others to establish and
retain prestige and privilege. Even though the authority of experts
is not assured particularly during times of controversy experts might
remain confident in asserting that members of the public should
continue to trust them for information. We expect respondents who
identify with this role to state that members of the public should
trust experts to digest and present information about biotechnology
or even assert that consumers have been prone to irrational reactions
On the other hand, some experts might now believe that instead of
acting as unquestioned authorities, experts should work to de-mystify
biotechnology. Political activism in recent medical and scientific
controversies-such as those concerning AIDS research or suspected
cancer clusters-has often been coupled with skepticism about the
priorities and authority of scientists. Within academia, the field of
science and technology studies (STS) has attempted to deconstruct
scientific authority by examining the mundane procedures of
laboratories and other research sites. Studies also indicate that
professionals have been losing prestige as they lose autonomy due to
market pressures, legal constraints, and a general decline in trust
in institutions. Some observers even question whether intellectuals
and professionals have distinctive skills and personal qualities.
Experts with this attitude might believe consumers should trust
experts, but they may also accept that consumers will derive moral
principles and other values from a variety of institutions. We expect
respondents who identify with this role to state that members of the
public are capable of understanding research findings and other
relevant information, that experts should work to make such
information readily available, or that experts must accept the
influence of non-scientific institutions on debates about technology.
Because the public lacks the means by which to assess complex
technologies, trust in abstract systems, experts, and institutions
will ultimately determine the success or failure of any communication
about food biotechnology by critics or proponents. Biotechnology
began as a field with a clear set of experts, namely those scientists
who created the technology itself. As others join the debate,
expertise is being redefined. This study will identify some of the
concerns that motivate experts in a changing field as they attempt to
redefine their authority.
To date, most consumer studies of food biotechnology have focused on
broad issues such as public awareness and perceptions about this
technology. This study more specifically explored experts' assessment
of the role of trust in communication about food biotechnology.
Although the experts who responded to this survey named a variety of
concerns about the future of biotechnology and the safety of the food
supply, many highlighted the need for effective communication between
experts and the public. Regarding experts' assessment of their own
roles in the debate about biotechnology, we proposed two possible
types of responses: one asserting the authority of experts and
another expressing the idea that experts should work to de-mystify
the technology for the public and to earn the public's trust.
By first identifying inaccurate and incomplete communication as
experts' biggest concern regarding food biotechnology, our results
focused on the groups' experts found most trustworthy. Throughout the
interview, experts revealed their preference for including diverse
organizations and viewpoints. Overall, we found little support for
the authoritative role of experts. Experts did not express
frustration or believe consumers were behaving irrationally by
seeking multiple sources of information. Rather, we found support for
the role of expert as a reliable source of public information about
biotechnology. Experts seemingly viewed food biotechnology as
something that consumers were capable of understanding. Furthermore,
experts thought it would be wise for the general public to come to
their own conclusions about the technology rather than accepting any
one group as an absolute authority. Respondents provided support for
this more inclusive view of expertise in two main ways.
First, experts expressed a concern that there was a communication
failure when trying to inform the general public about food
biotechnology. As reflected in the quotations, experts often looked
beyond their own areas of specialty to help remedy this concern. In
their responses to open-ended questions, few experts asserted their
unique authority to digest and present information for the public.
Many experts felt that consumers should use various sources of
information about food biotechnology rather than relying on one type
of organization. Some of the respondents advised using many sources,
specifically because they believe that the popular media often
provide consumers inadequate information.
Second, we also found support for this more inclusive view of
expertise in the rankings of groups that have the most influence over
consumers. The high ranking of media and critical non-governmental
groups suggests that the experts, who most trust science, fear that
they themselves have failed to communicate scientific principles to
the public. These rankings convey little support for the concept of
expert as absolute authority. Many of the experts who value
scientific assessments feel they should work to transmit scientific
findings and concepts more effectively through the popular media.
These findings also suggest that food experts in the United States
have been somewhat humbled by the difficulties of communicating about
biotechnology and that many acknowledge the importance of
Although there are obvious limitations to the generalizability of
this sample, it is hoped that these qualitative results will serve as
the basis for future research that will benefit from our
observations. This study was conducted with a purposive sample of
food experts in the United States; results might vary with other
types of experts in other nations or on other topics. The use of an
open-ended interview schedule and the rich descriptions that the
respondents provide comes at the cost of limited quantitative data.
Despite these constraints, however, several issues for future
research on sources of trust in the context of food biotechnology
seem to arise from these findings.
Most previous research on trust in experts has used ordinary citizens
as evaluators of trust. However, expanding the evaluators beyond
ordinary citizens is necessary if one is interested in identifying
the views of those who might have particular influence on public
opinion, whether food experts reach different judgments about
biotechnology, or whether food experts might misinterpret or
mismanage public opinion because they use different criteria. More
detailed interviews with a larger sample of experts would allow
differences of opinion across expert groups to be characterized and
analyzed. Some of the differences between scientists and others in
our sample suggest that experts in different institutions are
motivated by considerably different concerns.
Expertise may also be constructed differently across cultures. The
reception of biotechnology has been cool or even hostile in many
countries. The definition of, and meaning attributed to, trust is
also related to cultural context. Systematic cross-national studies
could test Hannigan's (1995) conclusion that experts contributed to
public skepticism in other countries. Such studies could consider the
political, organizational, and professional conditions that shape
public trust in biotechnology.
Ultimately, members of the public will place their trust in specific
institutions. Myriad expert groups attempt to influence these
choices. Preliminary evidence indicates rising skepticism about
agricultural biotechnology in the United States. Experts' beliefs
about their own responsibilities and shortcomings will help determine
which expert groups inspire trust.