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HortResearch slammed over misleading GM study

HortResearch slammed over misleading GM study

A new study by HortResearch into consumer attitudes to GM food is being criticised as flawed and potentially misleading and may become the subject of a formal complaint.

Consumer and brand researcher Jon Carapiet, a spokeperson for GE-Free NZ in Food and Environment) is concerned that the research and/or its reporting could mislead people, especially those who may want to use it to make commercial decisions about genetic engineering based on the findings.

"My concern is that in the research design or the reporting- it may be a case of ask a silly question- get a silly answer," said Mr Carapiet."The way the findings are being publicised looks more like PR than good research."

One example cited in the study claims that most people do not object to genetic modification of an apple with another, apple.

" Frankly it is a relief to be told most people do not object to it because we have been doing it for thousands of years," says Mr Carapiet. "Traditional cross-breeding is the backbone of conventional farming and very different to GE (genetic engineering) using a virus or bacteria to move gene fragments including viral promotors and anti-biotic markers across the species barrier. Were the respondents given explanations of the differences in modification processes they were being asked about?".

The concern is that because both techniques are called genetic modification, the study- respondents and those reading the report may be easily confused.

Another example of misleading language in the way the study has been reported is the level of acceptance for modifying milk to produce human insulin.

" It is one thing to modify milk, as the question seems to suggest. But it is quiet another to experiment with engineering transgenic cows. The fact is that it is not the milk but the cow itself that is being modified- with human and a cocktail of other genes, at least in current NZ experiments. The ethical issues are very different and again it seems there is likelihood for people to be confused or mislead."

Mr Carapiet says the difference between GE milk and GE cows highlights ethical issues that flaws in the study's research method or reporting seem to obscure.

The Royal Commission recommended against using food animals as bio-reactors, when alternative research can be used. GE-Free NZ (in Food and Environment) are calling for the Bio Ethics Council to investigate the current AgResearch application to ERMA to allow cows with a cocktail of human, mammalian, viral and bacterial genes. The economic impact of such experimentation is also of concern as it will make our clean-green natural image for food production and tourism very vulnerable.

The question about GE cows or GE milk is crucial- but this HortResearch study does not help answer that question, and contradicts other public surveys on GE cows. " Specifically- we need to consider if New Zealand researchers should be using fungi or yeasts to alter milk to create complex proteins instead of cloning transgenic cows. That would be far less damaging to our export-image and clean-green reputation," said Mr Carapiet.


For comment call Jon Carapiet 09 815 3370

BELOW- Report on the debate over the study and the recent HortResearch press release. New Study Food for Thought

Suburban Newspapers www.stuff.co.nz Central Leader 8th May 2002/ Western Leader May 10 2002

Do you suspect the furore over genetic engineering is nothing more than a storm in an eggcup? If so, you are not alone. AMY PATTERSON reports on a fresh study into the public perceptions about modified food.

New Zealanders are more concerned about pesticides in their food than genetic engineering, a national survey has found. HortResearch consumer scientist Jo Gamble conducted research into people's attitudes towards genetic engineering (GE) of food and the results of her national surveys of 400 people from May and October last year have just been released. " All you hear about is how much people hate GE, my survey didn't really show that," says Mrs.Gamble. Although 61 per cent of people surveyed said they were concerned about GE food to some degree, they admitted to more pressing issues with their diets. Concern for GE is on a par with artificial additives, at 62 per cent, and of less concern than pesticides, at 86%, and microbial contamination, at 87 per cent. " To me it says that two-thirds of the public are OK with GE as long ads they understand where the source of the gene came from," says Mrs Gamble. Only 30 per cent of respondents had changed their shopping behaviour since they knew some foods could be genetically modified. Of these people 20 per cent looked more closely at labelling and 10 per cent were more inclined to buy organic food or food labelled GE free. People who oppose GE food are a vocal minority, says Mrs Gamble. In the surveys one-third of the respondents strongly disagreed with it. Auckland's GE Free Coalition spokesman says the results are "PR spin". "I think the question that needs to be asked is how much do they know about GE to show they are concerned or not concerned," says Mr Carapiet, a market researcher. He says earlier research shows the more informed people are, the more concerned they are about GE. " The biggest question now is not whether 60 per cent of people like it or not, but whether there's going to be any choice." Mr Carapiet says the shift in attitude is that people want GE in the laboratories, not on the shelves. "There has been a shift. People are really clear that what they don't want is it in the open field, especially if it means no choice." The HortResearch results show people are not concerned with the gene technology, as 80 per cent of he respondents thought it is acceptable to develop an apple by selecting genes for good flavour and not change the genetic structure. This acceptability dropped to 63 per cent when the apple had been modified using a gene from a different kind of apple to improve the flavour. Mrs. Gamble says people weigh up the benefits and ethics of the genetic change to come to a conclusion. "I was quite surprised with how many people were OK about genetically engineering an apple," she says. Nearly equal to the response about the GE apple, 60 per cent of respondents think it would be acceptable to genetically modify milk from a cow so it could produce human insulin. Mrs Gamble says this suggests the benefit to humans is sufficient for many people to be comfortable with the gene technology process. Respondents were asked how well trusted different information sources on GE are. Both Greenpeace and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry were reasonably well trusted by respondents. Only two-thirds of the respondents had heard of the Royal Commission on Genetic modification in May last year. That had increased to more than three-quarters last October. But 20 per cent of respondents had little faith in the recommendations, while another 20 per cent had some or complete faith. Mrs Gamble says the surveys showed people want to know more on GE but were at a loss about how to get more information. "People want more information, they know there's so much out there but they don't want to get it themselves," she says. "Normally you'd say 'go ask a scientist', but the scientists aren't necessarily the good guys in this." She says this is because scientists have different, sometimes polarised, views about GE. Mr Carapiet says it is difficult for people to find a trusted source of information. " I think that's because the science community is divided; who do you listen to? The ones who are making money out of it or the independent scientists?"

GM Survey Results Monday, 27 May 2002, 11:15 am Press Release: HortResearch

27 May, 2002 Perception Influenced By Knowledge

An apple genetically modified using a gene from a different kind of apple to improve the flavour was acceptable to some degree by many New Zealanders according to a survey.

HortResearch consumer scientist Jo Gamble conducted the nation- wide survey with 400 people in May and another 400 in October last year. That was pre- and post- the Royal Commission recommendations.

One question in the survey asked respondents to rate acceptability of six different techniques and included apples developed naturally right through to meat from a cow that had eaten clover sprayed with pesticides and milk modified to produce human insulin.

Conventional apples were acceptable to most people, as were apples that had been created using gene technology, but not genetically modified. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of the people interviewed indicated that a genetically modified apple using genes from another type of apple to improve flavour was acceptable to some degree.

In contrast, meat from a cow that had eaten clover sprayed with pesticides was acceptable to fewer than half the respondents interviewed, similar to the acceptability of meat from a cow that had eaten genetically modified clover. However, milk from a cow genetically modified with human genes so as to produce human insulin was rated as acceptable to 60 percent of respondents, nearly equal to that of the genetically modified apple. Dr Gamble said, "this suggests that although the application uses human genes, the benefit is sufficient for many to be comfortable with the process."

She also said a third of respondents indicated they had changed their behaviour now that some food contained genetically engineered ingredients, mainly checking the labels more carefully, or buying products labelled as organic of GE free.

Interviews were also carried out with retailers and manufacturers in September last year and revealed that they were generally neutral to positive about the potential of GE to bring benefits that outweigh possible harm. There were some concerns regarding health and safety, the current level of knowledge regarding risks associated with GE and the motives of multinationals. However the retailers felt comfortable supplying GM products to consumers who are unconcerned about them, or who are keen to purchase them for specific reasons.

The retailers currently perceived that consumer preference was for GM free food, although they were also aware of a segment of the market for whom GMOs were not a matter of concern. They were strongly in agreement that their companies should stock GM products and were keenly in favour of labelling of GM products as this was considered necessary in order to give consumers choice.

Retailers considered that currently consumer attitudes to GM are shaped by a lack of real knowledge, a fear of the new/unknown and highly vocal (minority) pressure groups and they consider that consumer attitudes are likely to change over time as they become more familiar with the products.

This is consistent with the consumer research that shows unfamiliarity with terminology can lead to an unwillingness to purchase a product. However, Dr Gamble found that provision of even a small amount of information regarding techniques and terms resulted in a greater degree of acceptance of most product applications.

Dr Gamble said that as a general rule a direct, relevant benefit to the consumer is a key requirement for a GM product to be rated as desirable.

Almost all consumers surveyed had heard of MAF and Greenpeace and both organisations were reasonably well trusted. About three- quarters had heard of the Royal Commission on GM after the release of their recommendations. One third had little faith in the recommendations; another third said they had some or complete faith. (Time will tell).


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