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Recent poll of New Yorkers shows them evenly split on the use of biotechnology in food and agriculture

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A recent survey of New York state residents on the use of biotechnology in food and agriculture finds the public almost evenly split between those who oppose its use, those who favor it and those who are undecided.

The findings were among the results of a special-topics survey on biotechnology as part of the 2003 Empire State Poll, an ongoing poll of New Yorkers' views conducted by the Survey Research Institute at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

The survey findings reflect the public's apparent ambivalence on the use of biotechnology in food and agriculture. Thirty-nine percent of New Yorkers oppose the use of genetically modified food, compared with 33 percent who support it. A third, sizable segment, 29 percent, is undecided and neither opposes nor favors the use of biotechnology. Residents are similarly divided on whether the use of biotechnology is risky. Thirty-seven percent believe the risks of using biotechnology in food are greater than any benefits; 36 percent say the overall benefits are greater than any potential risk; and 28 percent think the benefits and risks are about equal.

"Public opinion about biotechnology appears to be much less polarized than commonly assumed," says Clint Nesbitt, manager of a Cornell public-issues education project on genetically engineered products (see http://www.geo-pie.cornell.edu). "Even among supporters and opponents, strength of opinion varies considerably. This suggests that the more strident voices so often heard in the public arena are not necessarily representative of public opinion at large and that there is fertile ground for a more-nuanced, balanced discussion of the issues."

The study also examined the demographics and behavior of New Yorkers who oppose, support or are undecided on the use of biotechnology. Opponents are more likely to be female, ideologically liberal and younger than those in the other two groups. They are less likely to pay attention to news on science and biotechnology, are less aware of or informed about biotechnology issues and have fewer years of achieved education.

Proponents of biotechnology tend to be male and ideologically moderate. They pay more attention to news about science and biotechnology, are aware of or informed about the subject and have more years of achieved education.

About half of the undecideds are male and half are female. They are the least aware of or informed about the issues, compared with opponents or proponents. However, of the three groups they have the most years of achieved education.

The special-topics survey is part of a research initiative funded by the Cornell Institute for Biotechnology and Life Science Technologies that is examining New York state residents' knowledge, interest and opinions about biotechnology in agriculture and food production, as well as news coverage of the topic in local media. According to Steve Kresovich, director of that institute, the goal in sponsoring this research is "to understand better how the people of New York perceive the impact of new technologies on sustainable agriculture."

The study was commissioned by James Shanahan, associate professor of communications at Cornell, who comments: "While media coverage of agricultural biotechnology has lessened overall, some people do still hold reservations. At the same time, the predicted avalanche of public rejection of biotechnology has not materialized. The calmer tone of discourse surrounding biotechnology creates a better environment in which to discuss benefits and drawbacks."

Kresovich adds: "The survey findings suggest that the general public may need to see more benefits to human health and the environment before it may be willing to accept products of the technology. As such, this information helps us plan future activities."

Those survey results from the 2003 Empire State Poll are based on 888 statewide telephone survey interviews conducted between March 15 and July 1, 2003. All reported results are weighted for the population distribution between downstate and upstate areas of New York, for white and nonwhite populations and household income. "Downstate" is defined as New York, Rockland, Kings, Richmond, Westchester, Suffolk, Queens, Nassau and Bronx counties, with the remaining counties of the state defined as "upstate." Results are statistically significant at a plus/minus 3.3 percent margin of error. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations. For more on the survey results, see this Web site: http://www.comm.cornell.edu/msrg/research_news.html.

About the Survey Research Institute at Cornell:

SRI conducts sophisticated survey research on par with other top U.S. polling agencies. With a state-of-the-art data collection and analysis facility that is administered by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, SRI has conducted major national and state studies on health and safety issues of New York City firefighters, rising tuition at universities, and support for civil liberties and the war in Iraq. It also is an important learning environment for Cornell students. For information, contact Yasamin Miller at (607) 255-0148 or yd17@cornell.edu or Erik Nisbet at (607) 254-7213 or ecn1@cornell.edu . For more on the Empire State Poll see this Web site: http://www.sri.cornell.edu .

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SRI conducts sophisticated survey research on par with other top U.S. polling agencies. With a state-of-the-art data collection and analysis facility that is administered by the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, SRI has conducted major national and state studies on health and safety issues of New York City firefighters, rising tuition at universities, and support for civil liberties and the war in Iraq. It also is an important learning environment for Cornell students. For information, contact Yasamin Miller at (607) 255-0148 or yd17@cornell.edu or Erik Nisbet at (607) 254-7213 or ecn1@cornell.edu . For more on the Empire State Poll see this Web site: http://www.sri.cornell.edu .


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