More than half of South Africa's population believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are good for the economy and many are in favour of purchasing genetically modified food.

This is according to the findings of the second Public Perceptions of Biotechnology survey, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), which was released by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in Cape Town on 1 November. The survey showed that 48% of South Africans were aware that they were eating genetically modified (GM) food, and 49% believed that it was safe to do so.

The first survey, conducted in 2004, indicated that only 21% of the public were familiar with the word "biotechnology", and only 13% of those surveyed were aware of consuming GMOs. The latest survey showed that these figures have increased significantly, to 53% and 48%, respectively.

The HSRC said these changes signified a major shift in public awareness. The HSRC's Dr Michael Gastrow said this could be due to increased levels of education, increased access to information, and greater prominence of biotechnology in the public discourse since the first survey in 2004.

Dr Gastrow said there had also been a major increase in attitudes favouring the purchase of GM food. The proportion of the public that said they would purchase GM foods taking health considerations into account increased from 59% to 77%.  Those who would do so on the basis of cost considerations increased from 51% to 73%, and those who would do so on the basis of environmental considerations from 50% to 68%.

GM forms of maize, soybean and cotton have been approved for commercial production in South Africa and these crops have become established in some parts of the country.

While the survey reveals a significant improvement in the public's understanding and awareness of biotechnology, the levels of understanding remain broadly linked to living standards measures, demographics, and levels of education.

While offering great potential for socio-economic development, biotechnology still remains a source of apparent public controversy.  However, with the introduction of the GMO Act in 1997, South Africa established a robust system to ensure any that GMO activities are scientifically assessed for risks to human health and the environment.

The approval of the national Bioeconomy Strategy in 2001 ensured coordination of all stakeholders in this sector, and aligned research, development and innovation with industry and government priorities.

The Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme, established in 2003, sought to advance awareness and understanding, but not specifically to promote biotechnology.  For this reason, to benchmark public understanding in this regard, the first survey was commissioned in line with Statisics South Africa processes.

Releasing the latest survey, the DST's Director-General, Dr Phil Mjwara, said that while there were significant improvements in the understanding of biotechnology, there was still a lot work to be done to bring the public on board.

Dr Mjwara said government was committed to ensuring that GMOs are safe and people are not at risk, and that the Department was committed to ensuring that adequate information was made available to citizens.

"We have thus tasked Biosafety South Africa to promote biosafety communication and awareness in South Africa – specifically to address the apparent gap in evidence behind the GMO controversies, and across the different public groupings in South Africa," said the Director-General.

Further, as part of the Bio-economy Strategy, Dr Mjwara said the DST was developing a process to move the biotechnology communication focus from awareness to advocacy, both to promote biotechnology opportunities, and to assist in marketing early stage technologies and start-ups.

"Biotechnology is one of the tools required to allow our industry to become more competitive on a global scale, and will contribute immensely to the Green Economy. The approval of the national Bioeconomy Strategy by Cabinet reiterates the country's commitment to technological innovation and its potential to bridge the innovation chasm," he explained.

Dr Mjwara said this was particularly important as South Africa was looking to develop technologies to leapfrog development and contribute to national imperatives such as food security, poverty alleviation, job creation and socio-economic development.

This included developing new technologies to support increased productivity; advancing the development of medical devices, diagnostics and the treatment of diseases to support improved quality of life; and helping to eliminate inequality through awareness and education.

Issued by the Department of Science and Technology