AgriPulse recently ran an article about a new Congressionally mandated effort to educate consumers about biotechnology. According to the article:
The article includes several quotes from yours truly. I was asked whether the spending will make any real difference with consumer attitudes based and whether the effort could harm FDA’s credibility as a regulator. Here is the (slightly edited) responses I gave to the article's author.
On the second question: can information affect public perceptions? The answer is yes - at least a bit. Most of our research shows consumers remain highly uniform (and often misinformed) about the technology. As a result, subtle changes in wording, descriptions of benefits of the technology, etc. can be persuasive. I think this can be seen most directly in the various state ballot initiatives on mandatory GE labeling. Early polling in all the states showed that voters approved of the laws by a wide margin. But as the vote neared and biotech companies and others started running ads, support eroded to such a point that the mandatory GE labeling laws failed in every state where they were put on the ballot. This is fairly strong evidence that information mattered in the "real world." That said, the USDA and FDA have communicated on these issues in the past, and it is unclear what effects they had.
All this suggests that the form of the communication matters. Information that is scientifically accurate but focused on the perspective of the farmers/consumers who benefit is likely to be most persuasive.
Could credibility be harmed? Well, I don't believe the government should promote a particular company or industry per se (though of course it already does that in a variety of direct and indirect ways such as encouraging conversion to organic, facilitating labeling programs and marketing orders, etc), but providing the public with accurate, scientific information on matters of public concern seems a legitimate role for government. Focusing on the wide range of applications in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors is one way of perhaps avoiding perceptions of impropriety. Also being honest about possible downsides and trade-offs is important. Also, not overselling - biotech is a tool but it's not a universal savior.