Can genetic modification save the US citrus industry?
US citrus is being devastated by disease — will consumers be willing to accept GM citrus and so save the industry?
Huanglongbing (HB), also known as citrus greening disease, causes citrus trees to bear small, misshapen, bitter-tasting green fruit and often die within five years. Currently there is no cure for the disease, which is spread by a small brown bug — the Asian citrus psyllid.
So far Australia does not have this bug or disease although it is lurking on our northern borders and the Department of Agriculture is on alert. However, it has entered the US where it is wreaking havoc. It was first identified in Florida in 2005 and since then has cost the US citrus industry billions of dollars in crop production and thousands of jobs.
Among other solutions, scientists are exploring the possibility of breeding genetically modified trees that are resistant to the disease. But given the controversy over the safety of genetically modified food, scientists need to know whether producers will adopt this technology and whether shoppers will buy and consume GM citrus fruit.
A recent study, funded by the US Department of Agriculture, provides some encouraging answers.
A representative sample of US consumers and conducted focus groups was surveyed to better understand American consumers’ attitudes about GM food and agriculture.
About half of the 1050 people who responded to the survey had positive attitudes towards GM science, the researchers found. Nearly 37% of the consumers surveyed felt neutral about GM science and 14% had negative perceptions of it.
Most of the people who were receptive to GM science were white males who were millennials or younger, the data indicated. They were highly educated — most held a bachelor’s degree or higher — and affluent, with annual incomes of $75,000 or greater.
Women, on the other hand, constituted 64% of the group with negative feelings about GM science. Baby boomers and older adults were nearly twice as likely to fall into this group. People in this group also were less educated — about half reported some college but no degree.
Since social contexts influence public opinion on contentious issues, the survey also assessed respondents’ willingness to share their opinions about GM science, their current perceptions of others’ views on the topic and what they expected public opinion about it to be in the future.
The research team was particularly interested in exploring the potential impact of the ‘spiral of silence’ theory, a hypothesis on public opinion formation that states in part that people who are highly vocal about their opinions in public encourage others with similar views to speak out while effectively silencing those who hold opposite views.
That paper was published recently in the Journal of Agricultural Education.
“We must have these conversations about these wicked issues,” said University of Illinois agricultural communications professor Taylor Ruth. “If scientists let other people who don’t have a scientific background fill the void, we’re not going to be a part of that conversation and help people make decisions based upon all of the facts.”
The findings have been published in the journal Science Communication.
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