Claire Marris obtained a PhD in plant molecular biology at Rothamsted Experimental Station in the UK in 1990. She then chose to leave the bench in order to further her interest in the role of science in society. She studied the sociology of science at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex and obtained an MSc in 1992. Since then she has conducted social science research about science in the UK and France, and in particular on agricultural biotechnologies. Her work focuses on public understandings of environmental and technological risk; public decision-making about risk-related issues; and the use of scientific expertise for public policy. In June 2000 she joined the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA).


Framing public perceptions of risk: Agricultural GMOs in Europe

Public perceptions of agricultural GMOs are often portrayed as "incorrect", "subjective" and based on "insufficient understanding", 3misplaced fears2, and "ideological preconception". This view is widespread within the policy, busi-ness and scientific worlds, and can indeed be found in EMBO's 3Statement on Genetically Modified Organisms and the Public2. In this as in many other texts, public reactions are portrayed as the opposite to "rational dialogue", implying that they are irrational and have no intellectual content. These assumptions about public perceptions of GMO will be examined in the light of results from focus groups conducted in France, the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain during 1998-1999. As we shall see, the results from this research suggest a different picture. I will argue that this misunderstanding of the public is at the heart of the controversy about GMOs and that no constructive dialogue can be developed without challenging these stereotypes. Some of the "myths" about the public which were not supported by our research include:

  • People are either "for" or "against" GM food technologies.
  • People do not understand the science and find the term "genetic" scary
  • People are obsessed with the idea that GMOs are "unnatural"
  • People are irrational/unscientific: their concerns have no intellectual basis
  • People's concerns about risk are ethical and political – not scientific
  • People tend to reject agricultural but accept medical applications
  • People demand labeling so that they can exercise choice as consumers
  • People's rejection of GMOs is "selfish" in face of Third World needs
  • People's views are unduly influenced by biased media reporting

This paper draws upon research conducted for the PABE (Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe) project, funded by the European Commission under the ELSA (Ethical, Legal and Social Aspects of the Life Sciences) component of the FAIR (Fisheries and Agricultural) research programme (Contract N¡ FAIR-CTC98-3844).

Five institutions participated in this project: C3ED, Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France; CSEC, Lancaster University, UK; ISIG, Italy; Centre for Technology Assessment for Baden-WŽrttemberg; Universita Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain.