Bolstering biotechnology education
Campus biologist contributes to new study suggesting ways of improving public understanding

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Plant biologist Peggy Lemaux, left, and Dave Thomas, of Coors Brewing Co., examine barley plants in a Burely, Idaho field.

21 August 2002 | A great many scientists involved in research into genetically modified (GM) foods believe their work is misunderstood by a public not well informed about the potential advantages — as well as the risks — of this new technology. Education, they believe — based on the best available science — is one key to promoting public understanding.

A Berkeley plant biologist, Peggy Lemaux, is one of 17 international experts in biotechnology who recently produced a report for the European Commission surveying the impact of biotech education in Europe and the United States. Lemaux, the only American co-author, focused on northern California for her contribution to the report — because not only is this region considered “the birthplace of biotechnology,” but the high level of concern about GM foods among consumers here may match that found among some European consumers.

Consumers across the country, however, seem confused and misinformed about biotechnology, Lemaux believes. “For most Americans,” she says, “‘biotechnology’ still implies mainly medical applications. Though we have some genetically modified food products already on the market, it still isn’t a well-understood aspect of biotechnology.”

For the most part, the two-year study states, educators, scientists, and the media have failed to provide science-based information about biotech, and to explain it within the proper context. A lack of comprehensive coverage describing its potential for addressing real-world problems, such as providing foods with improved nutrition, protecting the environment, and helping Third World farmers grow sufficient food, has been one of the major stumbling blocks. The report, presented to the European Commission in June, underscored the need for improved education and dissemination of scientifically verified information about the benefits and drawbacks of genetically altered foods.

The report recommends a variety of other ways to raise the level of knowledge about biotechnology and its impact on healthcare, crops, and food. One would be for universities to recognize faculty participation in public education outside the campus confines as a rewardable component of their job description. Such a system, the report says, would help stimulate more scientists to participate in the biotechnology dialogue as a routine part of their university teaching duties.

Scientists also need to be better trained to communicate more effectively. The study noted that scientists could better use the Internet and television, probably the most widely utilized communications media, to disseminate information and breakthroughs in agriculture and medicine.

Educational efforts to raise the veil of confusion surrounding biotechnology should be stepped up, the report also found. Continuous funding will be needed to begin a program of distributing accurate and updated information in Europe and the United States.

‘Birthplace of biotechnology’
California, often called the “birthplace of biotechnology,” is an effective yardstick by which to measure Europe’s overall level of education on the topic, says Lemaux. Northern California has felt the impact of these new bioengineering techniques more than any other region of the world.

“California often leads the nation in responding to agricultural and food-safety issues perhaps, in part, because it is the top agricultural state,” Lemaux says. “California produces approximately 60 to 70 percent of the fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in the U.S., and one of its companies brought us the first genetically engineered food — the FlavrSavr™ tomato‚ first introduced in the early 1990s.” It is also the number-one milk producer in the nation, and early skirmishes over the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST) in milk production made it clear, the report says, that consumers regard their right to know how food was produced as important.

Faith and skepticism
“The situation is quite different in Europe,” Lemaux observes. Issues relating to the safety of GM foods began to erupt loudly there nearly three years ago, leading to consumer unrest so strong that supermarkets were forced to rid their shelves of products containing GM ingredients. There were also several food-safety scares, like mad cow disease and contamination of animal feed with the cancer-causing chemical dioxin, which undermined European consumer confidence in their government’s ability to assure food safety with biotech foods.”

In considering ways of improving general consumer knowledge, the researchers suggest that policymakers focus in on two “critically important” information sources: the government and the media.

“In some countries,” wrote Lemaux, “government pronouncements are accepted as being sound advice, as is the case, for the most part, in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. But in others, like in many countries of the E.U., the pronouncements are treated with skepticism, precisely because they came from the government.

“Given that situation, the media is probably the single most important avenue for providing information to the public, at least in the short term. Journalists should recognize the public’s interest in biotechnology, its risks and benefits, and the importance of accuracy and in-depth reporting.”

The full report, entitled “Biotechnology: Educating the European Public,” is available at Educational tools for professionals and scientific information about agriculture and biotechnology for consumers are available at


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail