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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Karen Charman | PR Watch.org

The Professor Who Can Read Your Mind

by Karen Charman

Tom Hoban is a man with a mission: to convince people to embrace genetically engineered food. I had the opportunity to experience this firsthand at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) annual conference in New York City in June 1998 while we were lining up for lunch. Seeing the press pass dangling around my neck, he made a beeline for me and proceeded to attempt to educate me about the wonders of food biotechnology.

That might not seem strange--plenty of people push biotech--but Hoban is not a public relations flack or salesman at a company peddling biotech food. He is a professor in the sociology department at North Carolina State University (NCSU). Hoban specializes in consumer behavior and the psychology of conflict, a position that gives him a veneer (but only a thin veneer) of objectivity.

Industry promoters widely regard Hoban as the pre-eminent expert in consumer attitudes on gene-altered food, and he is listed in several industry source guides for journalists. Over the last ten years, he has conducted a number of government- and industry-funded surveys, which he says consistently show "two-thirds to three-quarters of U.S. consumers are positive about food biotechnology." Considering the controversy swirling around biotech food overseas and the likelihood that it will erupt on these shores, such a finding must be comforting to industry. His data, however, is questionable.

Hoban says he helped design the questions in a much-touted consumer survey conducted for the International Food Information Council (IFIC) but carried out by the Republican political and polling firm, the Wirthlin Group. The survey was first done in March 1997 and then repeated in February 1999, ostensibly so that a trend could be established. Besides trumpeting strong support for genetically engineered food, the nine-question survey indicates that consumer awareness of biotech food is low. It also claims there is little support for labeling biotech foods.


 



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 their farmers."

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 about."

Comfort Food

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 of consumers."

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 in biology.

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.


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Reprinted with permission of
PRWatch.org: 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.
 

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