Food biotechnology – the use of recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (rDNA) and cell fusion techniques to confer selected characteristics upon food plants, animals, and microorganisms (Mittal 1992; Carrol 1993) – is well understood as a means to increase agricultural productivity, especially in the developing world. The great promise of biotechnology is that it will help solve world food problems by creating a more abundant, more nutritious, and less expensive food supply. This theoretical promise is widely appreciated and beyond dispute (Rogers and Fleet 1989; U.S. Congress 1992).
Nonetheless, food biotechnology has elicited extraordinary levels of controversy. In the United States and in Europe, the first commercial food products of genetic engineering were greeted with suspicion by the public, vilified by the press, and threatened with boycotts and legislative prohibitions. Such reactions reflect widespread concerns about the safety and environmental impact of these products, as well as about their regulatory status, ethical implications, and social value. The reactions also reflect public fears about the unknown dangers of genetic engineering and deep distrust of the biotechnology industry and its governmental regulators (Davis 1991; Hoban 1995).
Biotechnology industry leaders and their supporters, however, dismiss these public concerns, fears, and suspicions as irrational. They characterize individuals raising such concerns as ignorant, hysterical, irresponsible, antiscientific, and “troglodyte,” and they describe “biotechnophobia” as the single most serious threat to the development, growth, and commercialization of the food biotechnology industry (Gaull and Goldberg 1991: 6). They view anti-biotechnology advocates as highly motivated and well funded and believe them to be deliberately “interweaving political, societal and emotional issues … to delay commercialization and increase costs by supporting political, non-science based regulation, unnecessary testing, and labelling of foods” (Fraley 1992: 43).