SOUTH AFRICA: Local biotech perceptions survey shows improved awareness

It is estimated that the economic gains from biotech crops in South Africa in 2013 alone was $313-million, which shows that biotechnology, or genetically modified organisms (GMO), has a positive economic impact on South Africa, according to Department of Science and Technology director-general Phil Mjwara.

Speaking at the Public Perceptions of Biotechnology survey results presentation in Pretoria, on Tuesday, Mjwara noted that South Africa grew more than 2.7-million hectares of genetically modified (GM) crops in 2014.

“Between 86% and 90% of maize and soy are GM and 100% of cotton is GM,” he said, adding that, while GM crops have been approved and adopted in South Africa by science-based regulatory systems and farmers, they still remain a source of public controversy.

“While it is appropriate for the public to have varying opinions on GM crops, it is important to provide scientific evidence where deliberate misinformation is offered,” he said.

Mjwara pointed out that the biosafety of any GMO is regulated in South Africa under various Acts and regulations, complemented by different institutions and approaches.

Meanwhile, the survey of South African public’s perceptions of biotechnology focused broadly around biotechnology, as well as on more specific areas such as agricultural biotechnology, medical biotechnology and indigenous biotechnology knowledge.

The survey shows there has been a major increase in attitudes that favour buying GM food, with the proportion of the public who would buy GM food on the basis of health considerations increasing from 59% to 77%.

The public’s attitudes towards buying on the basis of cost considerations and environmental considerations have also increased from 51% to 73% and 50% to 68%, respectively.

When it comes to knowledge about biotechnology, the study reveals that most South Africans report having little or no knowledge about biotechnology.

“A younger and more privileged group report considerably greater knowledge than older and less privileged groups. Almost half of the public feel that biotechnology is too specialised for them to understand,” the survey says.

It further reveals that South Africans have used biotechnology in the context of indigenous knowledge systems (IKSs) and practices.

For instance, groups with low incomes and low levels of education may find it difficult to engage with concepts of mainstream biotechnology, though they harbour rich traditions of knowledge and IKS practice that may be successfully leveraged to build greater awareness of biotechnology.

When it comes to the perceptions of medical biotechnology, the overall knowledge about medical applications of biotechnology is similar to that of GM foods, which suggests that attitudes among the public cut across specific applications of biotechnology.

White and Indian South Africans are more likely to see biotechnology as an overall risk to society compared with black African and coloured groups.

Higher levels of education and living standards are also associated with an increased likelihood to view biotechnology as a risk.

Those living on rural farms and in urban informal areas were substantially more positive in their assessment of GM food.

“An individual with no ethical or religious objections to GMO is much more likely to believe that biotechnology is a benefit rather than a risk. If an individual thinks that government effectively regulates GM food, then he or she will be less likely to view biotechnology with uncertainty and more likely to rate it as a benefit than a risk,” the survey noted.

The survey further recommended that policy interventions needed to include a strategic approach to addressing different publics in different ways, drawing on the evidence related to their level of knowledge, attitudes and preferred sources of information.

-Written by Anine Kilian (Contirbuting Editor Online) in the Creamer Media.  See article link here. 

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.

-A press released by the South African Government (Pretoria) published in  See article link here.