Stronger public outreach and education programs could makefood produced through biotechnology much easier to swallow.What might help even more is if biotechnology can cut thefamily's grocery bill.

Those are two views drawn from a federal study, scheduled forrelease today, of consumer attitudes toward biotechnology inagriculture and food production. The interim report to the U.S.Department of Agriculture Extension Survey also turned upunderlying attitudes that might offer some helpful hints fordevelopers of biotechnology foods.

Survey results indicate that biotechnology products andprocesses that result in lower-cost foods are more likely tosucceed than those that improve quality, but at higher costs.

Fifty-nine percent of the survey respondents said that theywould be more willing to purchase food produced throughbiotechnology if it was 10 percent cheaper and of equal qualityto food produced through traditional methods. Only 43 percentexpressed a willingness to purchase biotechnology foodproducts with an improved quality or taste if they cost 10percent more than traditionally produced products.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents found acceptable the useof biotechnology to enhance cotton plants to resist weeds andto improve food crops so that they resist insect damage.

Other consumer attitudes uncovered by a telephone interviewswith 1,228 adults during February and March: .

-- Women, who are statistically much more likely than men tomake food purchasing decisions, have a less favorable attitudetoward biotechnology.

-- Consumers perceive that the source of genetic material is arelevant issue in forming attitudes toward specific foods.

-- Potential environmental impacts of biotechnology aresignificant concerns.

-- Biotechnology used to modify animals gets less publicacceptance than when it's used to modify plants.

-- Consumers show a low level of confidence in thegovernment's ability to effectively regulate biotechnology.

-- A majority of the respondents found unacceptable someapplications of biotechnology involving animals, such asdevelopment of compounds that when administered tolivestock produce leaner meat; compounds such as bovinesomatotropin to increase milk production in dairy cows; andlonger sport fish.

-- Plant-to-plant gene transfers found much greater acceptance(66 percent) than .animal-to-animal transfers (39 percent);animal-to-plant (25 percent); virus-to-plant (20 percent) andhuman-to-animal (10 percent).

The survey results suggest several initiatives worth pursuingto increase public confidence in the use of biotechnology infood and agriculture.

Broad-based, ongoing and proactive education efforts areneeded, the report said. Consumers are more likely to trustinformation from health professionals, university scientists,farmers and environmental groups. Statements from industryand government carry much less credibility.

"It will be important to put biotechnology in a historical andtechnical context relative to other types of food productiontechnologies," the report states. "It will ... be necessary to showhow biotechnology represents an incremental change in pastpractices. Rhetoric about biotechnology as the 'next agriculturalrevolution' may not promote consumer confidence andacceptance."

The report was written by Thomas J. Hoban of the Departmentof Sociology and Anthropology at North Carolina StateUniversity in Raleigh and Patricia A. Kendall of the Departmentof Food Science and Human Nutrition, Colorado State Universityin Fort Collins.

-- Steve Usdin BioWorld Washington Bureau

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.