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Genetically engineered forage crops: New Zealand public attitudes

Bruce Small

AgResearch Ltd, Ruakura Research Centre, Hamilton, New Zealand, Email bruce.small@agresearch.co.nz

Abstract

Genetically engineered (GE) forage crops offer potential for climate change mitigation, enhanced production, enhanced health and production benefits for animals consuming the crops, and enhanced health for humans consuming them. While public resistance to GE plants and animals for human food has been substantial, little is known about public attitudes to GE forage crops. A representative sample of the New Zealand public 15yrs and over (n=1008) was surveyed to investigate this issue, along with attitudes to cisgenics (only DNA from the same species) and transgenics (across species and across kingdom DNA) production methods for GE forage plants. Attitudes to feeding food animals GE forage crops if benefits resulted for humans (improved heart health), or if environmental benefits resulted (reduced methane emissions), were canvassed. Intragenic/cisgenic production methods were preferred over transgenic, and within kingdom transgenics was preferred to across kingdom transgenics. Concern increased as the biological distance of the recipient organism increased from the donor. Respondents generally disagreed that GE forage crops could be contained, that they were environmentally friendly, or that it was morally acceptable to feed them to food animals. However, acceptance increased if there were human health benefits or environmental benefits. Although mildly morally wary of GE forage crops, a significant proportion of respondents were prepared to consider them favourably under specific circumstances.

Key Words

Transgenics, cisgenics, intragenic vector, GE forage crops, acceptability

Introduction

Genetically engineered (GE) forage crops, with a range of potential benefits for production, the environment and human health, are currently being developed in New Zealand laboratories (Dunahay 2010). Although GE crops have now been commercially cultivated for more than 16 years, recent studies claim no evidence of harm to human health or the environment (The Royal Society 2009). Nonetheless, research has shown considerable public resistance to GE crops in New Zealand (Gamble and Gunson 2002; Small 2005). However, the benefits of most genetically engineered products, so far, have been primarily for producers (Carpenter 2010). Evidence suggests that GE products will be more acceptable if they provide benefits for the consumer or the environment. For example, research indicated medical applications of GE are more acceptable to the public than food applications (Small 2005; Small et al. 2005). However, unlike GE food, GE forage crops are not eaten by people, rather, they are eaten by food animals; animals, the products of which (e.g., milk and meat), humans consume. Currently, consumer knowledge and acceptance of animals fed on GE feeds is poorly researched and understood (Dunahay 2010; Goldson 2010).

A significant proportion of New Zealand’s economy is dependent upon pasture-based farming (Ministry for the Environment 2007). To maintain competiveness in international markets, New Zealand agriculture seeks to intensifying productivity. GE forage grasses (e.g., ryegrass and clover) are a potential avenue for increased pastoral productivity. By increasing the levels of metabolisable energy in pasture grasses, productivity per animal may be increased. AgResearch Ltd is attempting to do this in ryegrass by altering the plant lipid content. Cosgrove et al. (2004) claimed that altering the composition of ryegrass lipids increased both production and the levels of healthy omega 3 in the milk and meat of the animals fed on the altered grass. Increased omega 3 in milk and meat may be beneficial to the heart health of humans consuming the products. Increasing fructan levels in pasture grasses increases the metabolisable energy available (Jones 2010). Increasing the sugar and lipid content of forage grasses may also provide environmental benefits through reduced degradation of excess protein in the animals’ rumen, leading to reduced nitrogen dioxide and methane emissions – both powerful greenhouse gasses (Winichayakul et al., 2008). As agricultural emissions are a significant contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas production, GE forage has the potential to mitigate a proportion of emissions and reduce New Zealand’s climate change impacts.

Cisgenics and intragenics are a recent development in GE. Cisgenics and intragenics use the tools of molecular biology to create new organisms that only contain genes from within a single species (in intragenics even the transfer vector comes from the same species). In contrast, transgenics uses the same tools to move a gene from one species into another species (usually with a transfer vector foreign to both). Genes may also be transferred between species from different kingdoms (e.g., splicing a gene from a plant into the genome of a mammal). Some of the ethical concern about GE appears to be associated with the genetic difference between the gene donor and recipient (Conner et al. 2007). Research has indicated that within species GE is more morally acceptable than across species GE (Gamble and Gunsten 2002; Small 2004). This has led some researchers to propose that cisgenic and intragenic organisms will be more acceptable to the public because of the lesser ethical concern (Conner et al. 2007). Researchers in New Zealand are attempting to genetically engineer forage crops using both cisgenics/intragenics and transgenics. This paper investigates New Zealand public attitudes to GE forage plants and the influence of potential environmental benefits (reduced greenhouse gas emissions), and potential health benefits (improved heart health for consumers of the food products from animals fed on GE forage). Attitudes to cisgenics, across species and across kingdom GE were also canvassed.

Methods

Respondents

A third party survey company (TNS) distributed email surveys through the Smile City database and were responsible for size, quality and representativeness of the sample - as a reflection of the New Zealand public. In all, 1008 usable surveys were returned. Demographic comparison of the sample with three previous similar surveys, which used postal distribution to achieve random samples of the New Zealand public 15+ years, were non-significant for education level, religion, age, and gender. A significant but small change occurred in sample ethnicity with slightly less European respondents and slightly more Asian, Maori, and ‘other’ ethnicity respondents – this slight change in the 2009 survey better reflects New Zealand population demographics than the three previous postal surveys.

Survey instrument

The survey consisted of 100 question items many of which form reliable and valid scales developed and refined in three previous surveys (Small 2005; Small et al. 2005). The current paper addresses only a portion of the survey results. A brief, value neutral, description of GE was given along with a brief description of forage crops and potential benefits that might be achieved by genetically engineering them. Potential benefits were described as: 1) human health benefits of consuming milk and meat products of animals fed on GE forage crops – decreased risk of heart disease and some types of cancers; 2) increased animal production and; 3) reduced methane emissions. The question items consisted of statements with which respondents rated their agreement or disagreement on a five point Likert type response scale. The scale was anchored at three points: 1= Strongly agree, 3=Neutral, 5=Strongly disagree. A “don’t know” option was also available for those respondent who felt they lacked the necessary knowledge to answer a question. In order to encourage participation, respondents were eligible for a draw for two prizes of $1000 and two of $500. In all statistical tests applied statistical power exceeded the recommended 0.8 for behavioural sciences and in most cases exceeded 0.9.

Results

Attitudes to GE forage crop, and potential environmental and human health benefits

Table 1 presents respondents attitudes to genetically engineered forage crops.”Don’t know” responses ranged from 13.7% to 35.9% showing varying degrees of public uncertainty regarding the question items. Thus, the issues about which the public were most uncertain were that the spread of GE forage plants can be controlled and GE forage plants are environmentally friendly. These items received significant moderate disagreement, as did the items regarding genetic engineering of plants fitting with cultural and spiritual beliefs and with basic moral values. The greatest concern was around potential negative environmental impacts (a teleological ethical issue) and concern about the intrinsic morality of GE (a deontological ethical issue). Generally, the public considered GE forage crops to be moderately morally unacceptable. However, if the resulting products had human health benefits or environmental benefits, then public attitudes towards GE forages were neutral. If there were health benefits, then consuming foods from animals fed on GE forage was acceptable to 30% of the sample and unacceptable to another 30% (the remainder being neutral). Interestingly, the statement “these meat and milk products will be useful products to develop” received a relatively neutral response with 29% agreeing or strongly agreeing and 29% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. Thus, although respondents were slightly morally uneasy about the technology they were able to appreciate that there were circumstances in which it could, nonetheless, be useful and beneficial.

Table 1. Attitudes to genetically engineered forage crops and potential benefits

Question item

Count1

%Don’t know

Mean2

SD

95%CI3

The spread of genetically engineered forage crops can be controlled.

726

28.0

3.49***

1.25

.09

Genetically engineered forage crops are environmentally friendly.

646

35.9

3.46***

1.16

.09

It is acceptable to feed animals that people eat (e.g., cows, sheep) forage crops developed using genetic engineering techniques.

826

14.5

3.33***

1.28

.09

Feeding animals GE forage crops with high levels of available energy is an acceptable way to increase animal production.

825

18.2

3.26***

1.28

.09

Feeding animals GE forage crops is acceptable if it results in human health benefits.

870

13.7

3.04

1.30

.09

Consuming products from animals fed on GE forage crops is acceptable to me if predicted to result in a 10% reduction in heart disease

843

16.4

3.07

1.27

.09

Feeding animals GE forage crops is acceptable if it reduces the production of green house gases (methane) responsible for climate change.

841

16.6

3.05

1.30

.09

These meat and milk products will be useful products to develop

822

18.5

3.09*

1.25

.09

Modifying plants using genetic engineering technology fits with my cultural and spiritual beliefs.

840

16.7

3.49***

1.23

.08

Modifying plants using genetic engineering technology fits with my basic moral principles.

854

15.3

3.44***

1.23

.08

1 Total sample size is 1008, “Don’t know” responses have been removed from descriptive statistics (i.e., Count, mean, SD, 95%CI)
2
1=strongly agree, 3=neutral, 5=strongly disagree
3
95%CI = 95% Confidence Interval
*p<0.05 – significantly different from neutral midpoint of scale (2-tailed ZTEST)
*** p<0.001 - significantly different from neutral midpoint of scale (2-tailed ZTEST)

Attitudes to within species, across species and across kingdom GE

Table 2 presents respondents attitudes to within species GE (cisgenic and intragenic), and across species and across kingdoms GE (transgenics).

Table 2.

Attitudes to genetic engineering: Within species, across species and across kingdoms

Question item

Count1

%Don’t know

Mean2

SD

95%CI3

Within species GE plants, produced using a foreign bacterial vector, are acceptable to me.

795

21.1

3.38***

1.20

.08

Within species GE plants, produced using a vector derived from the same species (i.e., containing no foreign DNA), are acceptable to me.

818

18.9

2.86**

1.26

.09

Across species GE plants are acceptable to me

816

19.1

3.59***

1.20

.08

Placing animal (including human) genes in bacteria is acceptable to me

819

18.8

3.72***

1.25

.09

Placing animal (including human) genes in plants is acceptable to me

830

17.7

3.80***

1.23

.08

Placing plant genes in animals is acceptable to me

820

17.9

3.75***

1.23

.08

Any combination of across Kingdom GE organisms are acceptable to me

808

19.8

3.83***

1.18

.08

  • sample size is 1008, “Don’t know” responses have been removed from descriptive statistics (i.e., Count, mean, SD, 95%CI)
    21=strongly agree, 3=neutral, 5=strongly disagree
    395%CI = 95% Confidence Interval
    **p<0.01 – significantly differs from neutral midpoint of scale (2-tailed ZTEST)
    *** p<0.001 - significantly differs from neutral midpoint of scale (2-tailed ZTEST)

From table 2 we can see there is a clear demarcation between attitudes to within species GE (cisgenics and intragenics) and across species GE and across kingdom GE. GE becomes progressively less acceptable as the donor and recipient species become progressively more genetically distant. Thus, within species intragenic genetic engineering received positive support, being significantly (p=.002, 2-tailed ZTEST) more acceptable than the neutral midpoint of the scale and significantly (t=16, p<.001, 2-tailed, paired t-test) more acceptable than within species GE using a foreign vector, which was significantly (t=-6.6, p<.001, 2-tailed, paired t-test) more acceptable than across species GE. Finally, across species GE was significantly (t=-6.1, p<.001, 2-tailed, paired t-test) more acceptable than across kingdom GE.

Conclusion

Survey respondents generally disagreed that GE forage crops could be contained, that they were environmentally friendly, or that it was morally acceptable to feed them to food animals. However, public acceptance increased if there were human health benefits (particularly if the respondent was concerned about heart health), or environmental benefits associated with GE forage crops. Intragenic/cisgenic production methods were preferred over transgenic, and within kingdom transgenics was preferred to across kingdom transgenics. Deontological concern tended to increase as the biological distance of the recipient organism increased from the donor. The results suggested that, although the New Zealand public were mildly deontologically ethically concerned about GE forage crops and teleologically ethically concerned about possible negative environmental consequences, a significant proportion will consider GE forage crops favourably, if the purpose of the use of GE technology is beneficial (for health or environment), and if the proposed benefits satisfy personal or consumer need. As speculated by molecular biologists, it appears that the use of intragenic production techniques is likely to enhance the public acceptability of GE forage crops.

References

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Cosgrove GP, Anderson CB, Knight TW, Roberts NJ and Waghorn GC (2004). Forage lipid concentration, fatty acid profile and lamb productivity, Proceeding from the New Zealand Grasslands Association 66, 251-256

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Winichayakul S, Cookson R, Scott R, Zhou J, Zou X, Roldan M et al. (2008). Delivery of grasses with high levels of unsaturated, protected fatty acids. Proceedings of the New Zealand Grassland Association 70, 211-216.

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