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South Africans still know little about biotechnology, survey shows

South Africans remain largely in the dark about biotechnology, despite government attempts to raise awareness, according to a survey conducted on behalf of the Department of Science and Technology.

The Public Perceptions of Biotechnology survey found that only 53 per cent of respondents were familiar with the term, and nearly three-quarters admitted to “having little or no knowledge about biotechnology”.

About half of the public have never heard of the medical applications of biotechnology.

The survey, compiled by the Human Science Research Council, was released on 1 November. It questioned nearly 3,000 South Africans on biotechnology, genetically modified organisms, GM crops and medical applications of biotechnology.

While public awareness has increased since 2004, when only 21 per cent were familiar with the term biotechnology, the population is divided in its views on biotech issues.

“There is the predominance of polarisation of viewpoints: most indicators of attitudes towards biotechnology reveal a public that is polarised, with substantial proportions being respectively in favour and against a particular issue,” the report says.

Nevertheless, the report states that it found South Africans generally “more positive” about biotechnology than citizens of developed countries, albeit far less informed.

It found that views adhere strongly to the country’s inequality fault-lines, where the old, rural, less educated, poor and black people were found to be the least informed about biotech matters.

The report advocates that science communication methods be adapted to reach these specific audiences.

“Policy interventions should harness these opportunities by strategically directing accurate and constructive messages towards specific publics, on an empirically informed basis,” the report says.

When South Africa released a strategy on harnessing the bio-economy in January 2014, one of the factors it listed as a condition for success was effective communication and marketing.