The problem with the survey, however, is that
the questions it asked are loaded with language designed to bias
the answers. Examples include:
- "How likely would you be to buy a variety of produce, like
tomatoes or potatoes, if it had been modified by biotechnology
to taste better or fresher?"
- "How likely would you be to buy a variety of produce .
. . if it had been modified by biotechnology to be protected from
insect damage and required fewer pesticide applications?"
- "Biotechnology has also been used to enhance plants that
yield foods like cooking oils. . . . Would this have a positive
effect, a negative effect, or no effect on your purchase decision?"
- "Some critics . . . say that any food produced through
biotechnology should be labeled even if the food has the same
safety and nutritional content as other foods. However, others,
including the FDA, believe such a labeling requirement has no
scientific basis, and would be costly and confusing to consumers.
Are you more likely to agree with the labeling position of the
FDA or with its critics?"
James Beniger, a communications professor at
the University of Southern California and past president of the
American Association for Public Opinion Research, reviewed the IFIC
survey and said it is so biased with leading questions favoring
positive responses that any results are meaningless. UCLA communications
professor Michael Suman agreed, adding that the questions "only
talk about the food tasting better, being fresher, protecting food
from insect damage, reducing saturated fat and providing benefits.
It's like saying 'Here's biotechnology, it does these great things
for you, do you like it?'" The results might be different,
Suman offers, if it contained questions biased in the other direction
such as: "Some people contend that some foods produced from
biotechnology cause higher rates of cancer. If that is so, what
effect would that have on your buying decision?"
Ignorance is bliss
Hoban's rap, either while presenting a paper
at a biotech industry conference or in a one-on-one interview, is
equally questionable. It goes something like this (my paraphrase):
"The public is much more positive about food biotechnology
than the activists would have you believe. Most people don't know
much about biotechnology, but that's because it is not important
to them. Americans--unlike Europeans who have been through traumatizing
food scares--have great trust in the public agencies that regulate
our food supply. Since the FDA says genetically modified food is
safe, that is good enough for most. The FDA position on labeling
is sensible because a label for biotech food would only confuse
consumers and hike the cost. Activist types are suspicious of biotechnology,
but they are probably technophobic and only represent a minority
view. Biotechnology is no different than what crop breeders have
been doing all along--it's just more sophisticated and more precise,
so what's the big deal? People support biotechnology in food because
it will benefit them. People's views on food are based on whether
they think it will bring them a tangible benefit--fresher, better
taste, convenience, higher nutrition, and price. Environmental and
food safety concerns only surface if there is irresponsible and
sensational media attention that stirs up fear. Besides, biotechnology
is good for farmers, and Americans--unlike Europeans--like to support
At industry gatherings, Hoban emphasizes--and
pokes fun at--the scientific illiteracy of the general public. At
the BIO meeting, after telling his audience that consumers decide
what food to buy based on taste, value, and convenience, not
on how the seed was produced, he quipped: "Lots of American
consumers probably don't know seeds are involved in agriculture--they
don't even know farms are involved in agriculture."
"Everybody's going to be
using biotech foods
pretty soon, so there
won't be a lot of alternatives."
--Professor-cum-Pollster Tom Hoban
In a recent telephone interview, he said that
when he asks people about concerns critics have been raising about
the technology, most respondents only express a vague sense that
biotech may result in some unwanted and unanticipated consequences
somewhere down the line. But again, ignorance shapes their response.
"People tend to think the positive is going to outweigh the
negative when we describe it for them. In general, they don't know
enough about it to get into all the details--that a plant is going
to somehow have its genes transferred to another plant," he
said. "When you present that to people in a focus group, they
will scratch their head and not really know what you are talking
Hoban sees such public ignorance as a great
opportunity for industry to "proactively educate" consumers
to gain trust in biotechnology. At the BIO meeting, he complimented
biotech companies and industry groups like IFIC and BIO for "paving
the way for biotechnology in the U.S." and making the public
"comfortable" to the point that he predicted genetically
engineered food "will not be an issue for the vast majority
Hoban miscalculated the extent to which genetically
engineered food has become an issue in Europe. At the June 1998
BIO meeting, he said activist groups like Greenpeace had gotten
all the media attention but they didn't really represent the average
European consumer. Today he concedes the biotech industry made some
mistakes in being too aggressive about pushing the technology and
not labeling the products so that European consumers could make
their own choices. However, he blames most of Europe's reaction
on an out-of-control media that "terrorized" European
citizens with daily headlines of Frankenfood, combined with the
aftershocks of betrayal over mad cow disease in England and dioxin
contamination in Belgium.
European controversy or not, Hoban doesn't
seem to be too worried about the future prospects of the industry.
He says non-GMO products are becoming difficult to find, and "everybody's
going to be using biotech foods pretty soon, so there won't be a
lot of alternatives."
Expert for Hire--Attorney Included
A short biography of Hoban precedes an interview
with him that appeared in the May 1996 issue of PBI Bulletin,
a publication of the Canadian National Research Council. It
describes him as an Associate Professor and Extension Sociology
Specialist at NCSU whose "main responsibilities involve working
with government agencies, industry and others to improve the assessment
and transfer of new technologies." Much of his work "focuses
on how people accept new products and respond to change," including
"ethical and educational implications of biotechnology."
Besides a PhD in rural sociology, Hoban has master's degrees in
agricultural journalism and water resource management, plus a BS
Hoban advertises his social research consultant
services on his own web page (http://sasw.chass.ncsu.edu/~tom/). The page
says he has "unique and interdisciplinary perspectives"
and "provides a practical focus for managing change."
It also says, "Dr. Hoban provides timely advice and expert
assistance in a number of areas including: consumer response to
new products; public perceptions of food biotechnology; management
of innovation and change; public opinion about technology and the
environment; and issue and crisis management." Specific skills
listed include: "survey and focus group research; team building
and partnering; strategic planning; policy analysis; needs assessment;
and technology forecasting."
Hoban was out of the country when I called
to ask who his clients are, so I called NCSU to request the "External
Professional Activities For Pay" forms that the university
requires its faculty to file when they take on outside work. The
university replied that the forms were "confidential personnel
information" and refused to provide them. When I called Hoban
later to request the information, he refused and was furious that
I had contacted the university. He added that he had checked out
PR Watch, found it to be very biased, and threatened that
his attorney would look closely at anything we wrote.
Reprinted with permission of
Center for Media & Democracy
The Center for Media & Democracy is a nonprofit, public interest
organization funded by individuals and nonprofit foundations and
dedicated to investigative reporting on the public relations industry.
The Center serves citizens, journalists and researchers seeking
to recognize and combat manipulative and misleading PR practices.