Perceptions and Attitudes of Singaporeans toward Genetically Modified Food

Article excerpt

This study examines the perceptions and attitudes of Singaporean residents who attended the first public lecture on genetically modified (GM) food in the country. Scales were developed for the underlying consumer concerns, and their relationship with one another and with demographic variables were examined. Slightly more than half of those who attended the talk (n = 417) indicated that they were worried about GM foods and 86 percent agreed or strongly agreed that GM foods should be labeled. Issues relating to health, ethics, and perceived benefits were the major underlying concerns. These were related to several demographic variables and also to perceived knowledge about biotechnology. Women were more concerned about the ethical and health aspects compared to men. Those with post-graduate education were the least concerned about health and ethical issues and more likely to buy GM foods if consumer benefits are shown. Married respondents were less concerned about health issues compared to single ones. Also, th ose with children under fifteen years of age were less concerned about health issues compared to others and more likely to buy GM foods if consumer benefits are shown. Respondents sub-scribing to the Hindu religion were more likely than others to buy GM foods if benefits are shown. Also, those who considered themselves vegetarians were more concerned about the ethical aspects of GM foods compared to others.

How concerned are people about genetically modified (GM) food? Agricultural biotechnology has been the subject of extensive public debates in many countries (Juma 1999). In the U.S., this concern has accelerated since last year with U.S. agricultural products facing an embargo from the European Union (De Bony 1999). Public debate on GM foods centers on issues of safety and labeling as well as on the ethics of gene alteration. At present the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require labeling for GM foods as it has concluded that there is no inherent risk in the use of biotechnology. Labeling is only required if the chemical composition or nutritional value of the food has been changed or if it contains known allergenic foods like peanuts (Food and Drug Administration 1992; Lemaux 1998). This practice is in contrast to the European Union, which requires that labels specify the presence of genetically modified organisms (Phillips and Isaac 1998). This restriction has caused U.S. corn exporters al one to lose roughly $200 million worth of business in 1999 (Consumer Reports 1999; The Independent 2000). Thus, the attitude and perception of people from various parts of the world toward GM foods is important not only to policy makers, but also to businesses that engage in selling such products.

A number of surveys have been conducted in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to find out the public's awareness, knowledge, perception, and attitudes toward GM foods. (For recent studies published in academic journals, see Sparks, Shephard, and Frewer 1994; Hoban 1997, 1998; Bredahl, Grunert, and Frewer 1998; and Hoban and Katic 1998.) In general, these studies indicate that compared with their European counterparts, U.S. consumers are more accepting of biotechnological products. However, these studies, as well as large public opinion surveys (e.g., Consumer Reports 1999 and Gallup Polls 1999), also found that the majority of Americans are poorly informed about the use of biotechnology in food production, and one-third are even unaware that GM foods are already on the supermarket shelves. Scholderer et al. (1999) conducted in-depth interviews of experts and consumers in several European countries and concluded that they have different perspectives. In their study, experts viewed GM foods as having nutritional, pr ice, and environmental advantages. Many consumers disputed these benefits. Consumers in Europe are still not convinced about the safety and benefits of GM foods.

Collectively, all previous studies that examined consumer attitudes toward GM foods found that the major consumer concerns were related to issues regarding health, labeling, ecology, and ethics. …