As part of this years project, our team wanted to find out how people in our local community felt about genetically modified organisms and various issues surrounding biotechnology. This was particularly salient to our project goals as we are developing DIY technology and alternatives to antibiotic use. Both of these developments can be used to further shared community and "garage" DIY laboratories. To understand how the continued expansion of biology and synthetic biology into communities will be and is being received, and to identify some factors which may contribute to different opinions on this topic, we conducted a community survey.
Survey data was collected from the University of Maryland community including students, professors, and other employees. Additional data was collected from the Montgomery Country Agricultural Fair.
We asked respondents to tell us about what their biggest concerns about the field of biology are today; and their responses were insightful and informative. We also asked them about their specific concerns regarding GMOs and genetic engineering.A total of 123 people responded, with only twenty having only high school biology as their highest level of study in biology. The rest were introductory college level or higher. Most respondents were undergraduate students.
The results showed some interesting trends. We noted that most of the older respondents were more likely to be unfamiliar with GMOs, but outside of that group most people had heard about them in the news at some point or another. Familiarity with GMOs, the ability to answer more in-depth questions regarding ethics or popular uses of GMOs, also correlated with level of education, and this correlation was the strongest amongst respondents with science background. Quite a few individuals without the science background could tell us what GMOs were, having heard about them in the news, but had limited knowledge of what they were used for and whether they were safe.
Every single respondent, however, knew that GMOs were related to food. They knew that foods were frequently genetically modified, especially corn because this is what the media covered most. Most recognized that GMOs were also used in health and medicine (72.4%), followed by fuel production as the next popular answer (55.3%). The least popular answer choice was actually bioweapons at 47.2%.
After asking what fields they believed were affected by GMOs, we asked questions about ethics. Roughly 50% of respondents found it unethical to genetically engineer humans and animals as opposed to roughly 20% finding it unethical to engineer bacteria, viruses, and plants. This implies the concern of people with genetic engineering is mostly for themselves and the animals they either consume or own as pets.
Upon being asked whether GMOs were ethically okay or safe, many just recited what the media told them, that GMOs were unsafe. This led to discussion of whether mandatory labeling of GMOs should be required, how well-informed people believe the public is about biotech, and whether science education in the states is adequate.
64.8% of respondents said they would require the mandatory labeling of GMOs. To truly test respondents, we also asked them how many would require labeling of foods with genetic material, DNA and RNA, and 77.9% said yes. It is evident consumers just want to know what they are consuming explicitly without even processing what it is they are requiring to be labeled.
56.8% of respondents said scientific education was less than adequate. They know they are nto getting all the information they could be.
Similarly, a whopping 95.2% of respondents agreed that not enough people are receiving sufficient education in biotechnology either. This is a sign that scientists need to reach the general public with their information more, out side of just media outreach.
Lastly we asked them about iGEM and if they knew what it was.
Even though many responses came from students or adults with science backgrounds, majority seemed unfamiliar with the competition. This shows how the competition, while it has grown, can be further popularized, especially by educating people more on what genetic engineering is.
Potential bias in this study lies, for the most part, int he fact that the respondent pool was very limited. While the team did take a day trip to a local Agricultural Fair which provided a larger variety of opinions and insights regarding GMOs, majority of the respondents the team could reach out to were other college students. This would be something to work on for the future. Despite the potential bias, it can still be concluded based on the survey results that people need to be taught and outreach needs to be made in the field of genetic engineering. People currently mistrust GMOs but admit they don't know too much about them. They're willing to learn more, so it's up to those who work in this field to debunk myths and educate those around them.