Biotechnology, described as “the manipulation of microorganisms to perform certain processes,” is developing very quickly, but public opinion and acceptance of it may not be evolving as fast. In fact the more we hear about biotechnology, the more it seems we hear an outcry against it. However, this opposition may be less pervasive than we think, or may only need a better education around the topic. While public opinion informs many things from policy to law, it is very important we make sure these opinions are formed by informed citizens, and not based in emotions such as fear.
To learn more, refer to the infographic below created by the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University’s Online Master’s in Health Law and Policy program.
The Benefits of Biotechnology
There are many benefits of biotechnology that we already enjoy and may not be aware of. These include new and groundbreaking medicines, increasing crop yields, and even making food taste better and be more nutritious. Biotechnology is used in the medical, agricultural, aquatic and industrial fields constantly for innovation and better output, and has actually been in use by the human race for thousands of years under different names and guises. Many of the foods we enjoy today were not even available just a few hundred years ago, but exist because of biotechnology. It can be argued that biotechnology is behind a large majority (if not all) of the advancements and innovations in recorded human history.
The Public Opinion
The public opinion of biotechnology is actually very divided, with many reactions based on emotions rather than on facts or science. While some react with awe and admiration, others react with skepticism and even fear, leading to some very strong opposition. This is further complicated by the varying support of biotechnology in the various fields in which it is used.
For example, in the early 2000s, 88% of the general population supported bio-engineered drugs, 68% supported stem cell research to possibly treat certain diseases and only 13% supported cloning or genetically altering humans. These are all within the medical field, yet reflect vastly different support numbers.
Today, 91% of the public support using stem cells cloned from the patient’s own cells, 79% even agree that biotechnology sciences have made life easier and 62% support the use of biotechnology in food. However, 65% oppose cloning humans, 44% are against stem cell research and 38% claim that biotechnology is responsible for making our way of life change far too quickly.
Scientists vs. The People
Of course, scientists are more in favor of many of the biotechnology fields and practices than the general public. Just 47% of the public approves of animal research, while 89% of scientists approve. 88% of scientists claim that genetically modified foods are safe, but only 37% of the public believes so. 68% of scientists believe food grown with pesticides is safe, while 28% of the public agrees. There is even a decline in public acceptance of vaccines, with only 68% of the public supporting them and 86% of scientists supporting them.
While a majority of the public recognizes the importance of biotechnology and supports many of its applications, there is still strong opposition from a considerable portion of the public. It is important to inform these individuals about the many beneficial uses of biotechnology, such as curing many diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. These cures will not only help to save lives, but also help cut federal health care spending and save the American people trillions of dollars.
Biotechnology and the Law
Of course, biotechnology is governed by laws, which are often created and/or influenced by public opinion. Public opinion can sway the hearts and minds of everyone, including lawmakers.
Lawmakers can affect how biotechnology is funded (or if it is at all), and can ultimately affect if/when new drugs are discovered and made, how quickly global food shortages can be alleviated, and how industry innovates and invests in new products. Because of this, it is important that public opinion, and those of lawmakers, be informed by facts and research as much as possible.
The development time between theory and a tangible product in biotechnology is far longer than that of other sciences. It is usually seven to ten years and generally requires anywhere from $250 million to $300 million to test, create, develop and complete a drug or other product for market. While innovation and science evolves rapidly, the laws surrounding these developments often do not. This leaves lawyers, companies and scientists struggling with complex legal and even moral issues that compound the time it may take for new products to be available to the public.
The U.S. government has a formal policy for biotechnology and its advancement, called The Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. It is governed and implemented by several departments such as the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Future of Biotechnology
Despite the often large disparity in approval between scientists and the public, biotechnology has a bright future. Public opinion has evolved, and continues to do so at a rapid rate. Biotechnology will be used to find the genetic links of most diseases, improve our overall quality of life, increase lifespans, find a cure for cancer, enhance foods to actually treat disease and much, much more. The follow-up duty of educating the public to help biotechnology advance rests with all of its supporters.
Of course, there’s also a large field of innovations that could happen through biotechnology that we haven’t even speculated on yet. For example, the answer to reversing the effects of global warming and saving our planet may rest with biotech research. The augmentation of humans for better senses, performance and more may also come to fruition through biotech innovation. It is possible biotechnology may even be able to accelerate our furthest space exploration dreams.
Just as almost all of the best inventions today started as science fiction (cell phones, virtual reality games, submarines, etc.), there may be many inventions waiting in the wings that are currently only available in fantasy. Biotechnology itself evolves with new discoveries and products, so it’s impossible to say exactly where it will lead — only that it will continue to grow, and it would be wonderful if public support grew along with it.