Bio what?!

First comprehensive SA biotech public perception study completed provides startling results on SA's knowledge of biotechnology

Eight out of ten South Africans have no knowledge about biotechnology and well over half have never even heard of the term before. Despite this lack of understanding, an average of 57% indicated that different applications of biotechnology should continue.

So say the results of the most comprehensive survey on public perceptions of biotechnology undertaken in South Africa to date. This national study involved a sample of 7000 adults aged 16 and older in households geographically spread across the country’s nine provinces, including urban and rural communities of all race groups. The sample was designed to represent the total adult population, more than 29 million adults, of South Africa. Respondents were interviewed in person in the language of their choice.

The survey was undertaken by the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) Programme in collaboration with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). The aim was to “find out what people think, feel and understand about biotechnology” according to Helen Malherbe, Coordinator of the PUB Programme. Prepared with input from national and international survey experts, the survey included adapted questions from polls undertaken elsewhere, to enable a comparison of South African public perceptions internationally.

The survey results reveal a number of interesting findings:

  • In terms of food content, 51% of respondents seldom or never read food labels, while nearly a quarter (23%) do on a regular basis. When asked what additional information they would like to see on food labels, ingredient information and health content were equal majorities (21% each), while 22% didn’t know. Interestingly, only 1% specified that they would like to see information on GMO content and an equal 1% on organic certification.
  • Universities came out top (23%) as the most trusted institution to provide truthful information on biotechnology, followed by the media (21%), and then government (16%). Consumer groups and environmental organizations came in equal 4th place, followed by religious organizations and then industry.
  • Just over a quarter (26%) of respondents did not think biotechnology poses a risk for society compared to 21% who do, and a large portion (42%) did not know.
  • 73% of respondents did not know if genetic modification (GM) is positive or negative, with 11% considering it positive and 10% negative.
  • Of those with a negative attitude towards biotechnology (GM, genetic engineering & cloning), the majority (53%) could not give a specific reason for feeling negative. Reasons given by the remainder varied from 15% who said it would be unhealthy for humans to 11% who felt it violated religious or ethical principles.

“This extreme lack of knowledge imparts is a weighty responsibility, and precisely why we instituted the PUB Programme as a key instrument of the National Biotechnology Strategy” says Dr Adi Paterson, Deputy Director General of the Department of Science and Technology.

The PUB Programme, funded by the Department of Science and Technology, is implemented at arms length from government to enable autonomy and an unbiased approach, through the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) which is a business unit of the National Research Foundation. The PUB Programme aims to promote a clear, balanced understanding of the potential benefits and risks of biotechnology and ensuring broad public awareness, dialogue and debate about biotechnology and its current and potential future applications to enable informed decision-making.

Malherbe says: “Of particular interest to the PUB Programme is that 44% of people would like to know more about medical biotechnology and about 24% about GM foods and agricultural biotechnology. This information will help the Programme to focus its information resources and respond to specific information needs.”

The PUB Programme is now working on complementing this study with more in-depth, qualitative studies through focal groups to investigate people’s knowledge, perceptions and attitudes in more detail.

“This will help us to focus our resources and to supply South Africans with the most appropriate information regarding the potential benefits and risks of biotechnology. We hope this will empower them to become participants in this area of science that already receives significant government funding and is said to be a growth sector for South Africa,” Malherbe concludes.

The survey report is available on along with a selection of other surveys undertaken in South Africa and internationally.

More information:

Helen Malherbe


April 2005