Public perceptions of biotechnology in South Africa

  • Michael Gastrow Human Sciences Research Council – Education and Skills Development, Cape Town, South Africa
  • Ben Roberts Human Sciences Research Council – Education and Skills Development, Cape Town, South Africa
  • Vijay Reddy Human Sciences Research Council – Education and Skills Development, Durban, South Africa
  • Shameelah Ismail Faculty of Business and Management Sciences, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town, South Africa
Keywords: science engagement, science communication, science policy, technology policy, public understanding of science

Abstract

A nationally representative survey of the South African public’s perceptions of biotechnology provides new insights into the position of the sector in the public sphere. Familiarity with the concept of biotechnology, and awareness of GM food, have increased over the last decade, although these changes have occurred from a low base. Compared to Europeans, South Africans are more positive about the health implications of GM food, less critical about the environmental impact of GM food, and more positive about the economic consequences of GM food. Knowledge about biotechnology is positively correlated with younger age, higher educational attainment and higher living standard. For marginalised groups, particularly low-income groups in rural areas and traditional authority areas, engaging on the basis of indigenous knowledge systems may prove to be the most effective platform for communication. The concepts of DNA and genes are far better understood than those of genetic modification or GM food, and would therefore present a better starting point for engagement and knowledge transfer. Together, these considerations point towards new strategic imperatives for public engagement in the South African biotechnology sector. Public policy, and broader sectoral engagement strategies, need to take into account: (1) the highly dynamic nature of public perceptions, (2) the diversity of views held by different demographic groups and (3) the diversity of sources of information utilised and preferred by different demographic groups. These considerations would support a strategically targeted engagement approach that would leverage the rapidly growing public awareness of biotechnology in a constructive manner.

Significance:

  • Provides new insights into public perceptions of biotechnology in South Africa
  • Informs new strategic imperatives for public engagement in the South African biotechnology sector
  • Quantifies changes over time and differences across demographic groups in biotechnology perceptions
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Published
2018-01-30