South Africa: Science and Technology On Public Perceptions of Biotechnology in South Africa Survey

Half of South Africans are familiar with biotechnology

More than half of South Africa's population believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are good for the economy and many are in favour of purchasing GM food.

This is in contained in the second survey on the Public Perceptions of Biotechnology in South Africa conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) which was released by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in Cape Town today.

The survey showed that most South Africans are aware they are consuming genetically modified food; figures indicate that 48% were aware that they were eating GMOs while 49% believed it was safe to do so.

The first survey conducted in 2004 revealed that public familiarity with the term 'biotechnology', stood at only 21%, while and there was a 13% public awareness of GM consumption. The latest survey commissioned by the DST last year, showed that the figures have tripled, 53% and 48% respectively.

The HSRC said each of these changes signified a major shift in public awareness. The HSRC's Dr Michael Gastrow said these changes could be due to increased levels of education, increased access to information, and greater prominence of biotechnology in the public discourse since the first survey in 2004.

Dr Gastrow said there had also been a major increase in attitudes that favour the purchasing of GM food. The proportion of the public that would purchase GM foods on basis of health considerations increased from 59% to 77%, on cost considerations increased from 51% to 73%, and on environmental considerations from 50% to 68%.

GMO forms of maize, soybean and cotton have been approved for commercial production in South Africa and these crops have become established in some parts of the country.

While the survey reveals a significant improvement of the public's understanding and awareness of biotechnology, the levels of understanding remain broadly linked to living stand measures (LSM's), demographics, and levels of education. In addition, biotechnology still remains a source of apparent public controversy, despite offering great potential for socio-economic development.

With the introduction of the GMOs Act in 1997, South Africa established a robust system to ensure any activities with GMOs are scientifically assessed for potential risks to human health and the environment.

Among the key aspects was the approval of the National Bio-economy Strategy in 2001 to ensure coordination of all stakeholders in this sector, and to align research, development and innovation with that of industry and government.

The Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme established in 2003, sought to advance awareness and understanding but not specifically to promote biotechnology. To benchmark public understanding in this regard, the first survey was commissioned in line with Stats SA processes.

Releasing the latest survey, the DST's Director-General, Dr Phil Mjwara said while there were significant improvements on the understanding of biotechnology, there was still a lot work to be done to bring the public on board.

Dr Mjwara said Government was committed to ensuring that GMOs are safe and people are not at risk. The DST DG added that the department was committed to ensuring that adequate information was made available to ensure an informed citizenry.

"We have thus tasked Biosafety South Africa to promote biosafety communication and awareness in South Africa - specifically to address the apparent gap in evidence behind the GMO controversies, and across the different public groupings within South Africa," said the DG.

Further, as part of the Bio-economy Strategy, Dr Mjwara said the DST was developing a process that moves biotechnology communication from awareness to advocacy, both to promote biotechnology opportunities, and to assist in marketing early stage technologies and start-ups.

"Biotechnology is one of the tools required to allow our industry to become more competitive in a global scale and contribute immensely to the Green Economy. The approval of the National Bio-economy Strategy by Cabinet reiterates the country's commitment to technological innovation and its potential to unlock the innovation chasm," said the Director-General.

Dr Mjwara said this was particularly important as South Africa was looking to develop technologies to leapfrog development and contribute to national imperatives such as food security, poverty alleviation, job creation and socio-economic development.

This includes developing new technologies to support increased productivity, to advance medical devices, diagnostics and treatment of diseases that support improved quality of life and the elimination of inequality through awareness and education, among others.

Source: Department of Science and Technology.

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