Academic journal article Communication Studies

Using Theory to Guide Formative Evaluation of "Who's Afraid of Franken-Food?": Implications for Health Message Design (in Press, Communication Studies)

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Using Theory to Guide Formative Evaluation of "Who's Afraid of Franken-Food?": Implications for Health Message Design (in Press, Communication Studies)

Article excerpt

Genetically altered crops. Modified varieties. Franken-food. All are terms used to describe the biotechnology of modern agriculture. Biotechnology is defined as the use by industry of recombinant DNA, cell fusion, and new bioprocessing techniques for research and product development (Human Genome Project, 2000). In other words, biotechnology has the ability to break down genetic barriers by combining, within and between species, the genes of plants, animals, and even humans for the production of seeds, foods, fiber, and medical products. For example, scientists have been able to inject tomatoes with a gene of a flounder to guard against freezing and are developing crops that are created with genes that make them more able to withstand pesticides (Woodworth, 2000). Additionally, biotechnology is used to protect plants against pests by injecting them with toxins (Fincham & Ravetz, 1991).

In relation to public reaction surrounding two biotechnologically engineered food products that were introduced in 1994, bovine somatotropin (BST) and Flavr-Savr tomatoes, Hoban (1995) concluded that "food biotechnology will not become much of a social problem" (p. 206), and overall, the majority of people demonstrate little interest in or concern for technology until the benefits or risks are brought close to home. The risks have been "brought close to home," however, due to the onslaught of popular media addressing agricultural biotechnology (Weiss, 1999; Kieckhefer, 1999; Barboza, 1999; Gates, 2000; Nash, 2000). "'We have so many questions about these plants,' remarks Guenther Stotzky, a soil microbiologist at New York University. 'There's a lot we don't know and need to find out'" (Brown, 2001, p. 52). As a result of the new information reported by the media to the lay public about genetically modified (GM) foods, health communication researchers could benefit from investigating the lay public's understanding of GM foods.

The purpose of this research was to conduct a theoretically driven formative evaluation of the lay public's understanding of GM foods. Formative evaluation comprises a critical first step in systematically identifying what activities should be included in a health campaign plan and what content will be important to include in health messages (Pfau & Parrott, 1993). The primary objective of this formative evaluation was to apply the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1985) to purposively assess the attitudes, subjective norms, and perceptions of control the lay public has with regard to GM foods, as little research is available to address these issues.

A THEORY OF PLANNED BEHAVIOR APPROACH TO LAY PUBLIC RESPONSES ABOUT AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY

The Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1985), an extension of the Theory of Reasoned Action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), has been widely used in the health literature to predict behavior. According to the theory, individuals are rational decision-makers who consider options and implications of a behavior before actually engaging in the behavior (Ajzen, 1985). With regard to GM foods, then, the lay public would be assumed to consider the costs and benefits associated with eating these products before choosing to consume them. According to the theory of planned behavior, three conceptually independent variables contribute to the formation of behavioral intentions that predict actual behavior: individual attitudes, subjective norms, and perceptions of behavioral control (Ajzen, 1988). Each of these constructs was considered in this formative research.

Individual Attitudes

Within the theory of planned behavior, individual attitudes toward the behavior refer to favorable or unfavorable evaluations and appraisals of the behavior in question (Ajzen, 1991). In the case of GM foods, individuals must assess the risks and benefits associated with eating these products. Although the ability to break down genetic barriers is a new technology, agricultural biotechnology is not new; the food industry has used mutation and selection techniques for the production, processing and preservation of food for centuries. …

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