LSU AgCenter employee knowledge of genetically modified (GM) products

Linda Benedict  |  4/22/2008 10:16:05 PM

Heli J. Roy

In the United States, genetically modified crops include corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, squash and papaya. Nearly all of the soybeans and cotton grown in Louisiana are genetically modified.

LSU AgCenter researchers use genetic modification (GM) and genetic engineering (GE) methods to improve yield and characteristics in plants and animals. They are familiar with GM and GE and find these methods acceptable; however, the attitude of the larger AgCenter community toward the use of GM and GE methods was not known. A survey of AgCenter employees was conducted to determine basic knowledge about biotechnology and genetic modification, and the acceptance of GM and GE methodology.

The terms biotechnology, genetic modification and genetic engineering are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. They are not the same. Biotechnology is a broad term that refers to the use of a living organism or its components, such as enzymes, to make products. Genetic modification can involve alteration by conventional crossbreeding or other methods. Genetic engineering is a process in which an organism’s genetic material is altered using recombinant DNA technology. In this process, recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA) is used to insert a gene from any species into an organism’s genetic material to achieve its subsequent expression in a new food crop or species. Recombinant DNA technology allows genes to be inserted in an organism to produce combinations that would not otherwise occur in nature. GE foods are derived from plants or animals created through the process of DNA recombination, in which genes are transferred from one plant or animal into the genetic code of another plant or animal.

GM and GE are used to improve traits in animals and plants to increase herbicide resistance, to increase crop yield, improve plant survival in harsh climates, reduce fat accretion, improve meat production and increase shelf life. About twothirds of all GM crops grown worldwide are grown in the United States. Some people find GM and GE food products controversial. Production of GM products in Europe has been met by consumer demonstrations. In the United States, more than three-fourths of consumers polled (77%) are aware that methods of modifying genes exist, and 56 percent say they have heard about GM foods. The majority of Americans (52%) are not aware that GM foods are in grocery stores, and only about a third believe they have consumed GM products.

Survey of AgCenter employees
The LSU AgCenter Institutional Biosafety Committee conducted a survey through e-mail of all AgCenter employees (1,412) in March 2005. The purpose was to:
  • Assess the knowledge of AgCenter employees about biotechnology, GM and GE products.
  • Find out their attitudes about biotechnology.
  • Use the survey results to guide in preparation of educational materials to be produced on the use of biotechnology and GM and GE in modifying food crops to improve human health.
There were 338 replies for a rate of return of 24 percent. The majority of the respondents were between 46 and 55 years of age (36%), male (60%) and had completed graduate school (70%). The highest response rate was from those that identified themselves as field agents (25%).

According to the results, LSU AgCenter employees were aware of biotechnology. For example, there was a 70 percent affirmative response to the statement, “Genetic modification involves recombinant DNA technology.” More men knew this than women, and more men than women were familiar with biotechnology.

The respondents were aware that genetically modified crops have already been released in the United States (94.4%); older people were more aware of the prevalence of genetically modified crops than younger people.

The respondents were aware that biotechnology was used for producing insulin (78.6%); women were more aware of this than men. The respondents felt positive about biotechnology with 68.7% indicating that it was very important. The respondents also felt that GM products can reduce soil erosion (68.3% positive response), water use (78.1% positive response) and clean pollutants (78.1% positive response).

However, the respondents also had some concerns. The majority felt that there are significant environmental issues involved with GM (89%) products, with women and younger people being more concerned about the risks.

About half expressed concern about moving genes from modified organisms to the environment (48.2%). Older individual and men were less concerned about moving genes to the environment than women and younger individuals. There was also concern about the creation of “superweeds” (56.2%), or creation of insects that develop resistance to pesticides (59.8%).

This study found that, overall, LSU AgCenter employees were aware of biotechnology and were in favor for the use of biotechnology in food crops. They also felt that the use of GM products did not harm the environment, although there were concerns about moving genes from one organism to another. Previous studies have found ambivalence and reservations among the public regarding the use of biotechnology within agriculture and food production. The study population consisted of the employees of the LSU AgCenter who may be more knowledgeable about biotechnology than the general public. According to the survey, the respondents were aware that genetically modified food products were available, that medications were being produced using biotechnology and that GM involves recombinant DNA technology.

Based on this study, an educational program on biotechnology in agriculture and food production should address concerns about the environment, such as creation of resistant weeds and insects and the influence on water use and pesticides. It should also address the production of pharmaceuticals in food crops, and should encompass legislation and consumer acceptance of GM products around the world.

An educational program including a PowerPoint presentation, fact sheets and a display will be ready for training LSU AgCenter employees beginning in August 2008. The program will be used to educate the public about genetic engineering of plants and animals beginning October 2008.

Acknowledgment
LSU AgCenter Institutional Biosafety Committee for help in preparing the survey and James Geaghan, Professor, Department of Experimental Statistics, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.

(This article was published in the winter 2008 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
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