Assessing stakeholder attitudes to agricultural biotechnology in developing countries
Philipp Aerni
Keywords:  Developing countries, Philippines, Mexico, Small-scale farmers, Public acceptance
Correct citation: Aerni, P. (2001), "Assessing stakeholder attitudes to agricultural biotechnology in developing countries." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 47, p. 2-7.

The current global system governing biotechnology has largely been shaped by Western hopes and fears and more research is needed into how developing countries view this new technology. This article compares two surveys that took place in the Philippines and Mexico and assesses some of the findings. Such results may be useful in developing integrated global risk and benefit management strategies.

In industrialized countries, psychologists, sociologists and political scientists have been researching public perception and the political dimensions of the agricultural biotechnology debate. However, few surveys have focused on how agricultural biotechnology is discussed and perceived in developing countries. This lack of research is one of the reasons why certain stereotypes have emerged in the North about how agricultural biotechnology is seen in the South. Such preconceptions make it possible for extreme proponents and opponents of agricultural biotechnology in industrialized countries to select representatives from developing countries whose views and interests coincide with their own, and encourage them to speak in the name of all the local stakeholders in their country. As a result there has often been an over-simplification of the way the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology are seen in the South.

Stakeholder surveys

Between 1997 and 2001, three public attitude studies on perceptions of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries were planned and carried out in the Philippines, Mexico and South Africa. This article deals with the methodology used in these studies and discusses initial results from the Mexico and Philippines surveys. Material collected in South Africa is still being analyzed. The first study focused on the Philippines (see also Monitor No. 38). It was initiated by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) as part of a larger research project investigating public acceptance of genetically engineered food in industrialized and developing countries. The Philippines was chosen because it had been at the centre of a controversy surrounding Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) rice, a pest resistant variety developed by ETH and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Subsequently the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) approved funds for additional case studies with similar objectives to be carried out in Mexico and South Africa. These countries were selected because they had substantial local biotechnology research capacity and were the scene of considerable controversy and debate about the role of transgenic crops in local agriculture. They also each had enough regional political and economic power to influence public attitudes in neighbouring countries.

Assessing perceptions

An individual's perceptions of the risks and benefits of a new technology is determined by personally selected sources of information, values, interests, and individual experiences. However, where agricultural biotechnology is concerned, most people cannot rely on their own experience. Instead, they depend on information received from other sources such as rumours, the experiences of people working in the field, and statements issued by industry, government, public interest groups, academia and the media. An individual's personal worldview strongly determines how information is assessed for reliability.

In each of the three case studies, a stakeholder-based approach was used to investigate public perception. The stakeholders selected were political actors who were generally recognized as playing a significant role in national agricultural biotechnology debates. It was assumed that such people would be well informed and would, therefore, have considerable influence on public opinion. This approach made it possible to conduct a survey on public attitudes in spite of a low level of public awareness of the subject. It also made it possible to analyse the way perceptions, interests and scientific knowledge shape political decisions and provided a basis for predicting how the debate might develop over time. Although it can be assumed that political actors have a significant influence in countries where little is known about agricultural biotechnology, it is important to realise that sometimes they may be ill-informed themselves. In our surveys, contradictory answers and the number of 'don't know' replies reflected the extent to which political actors were informed about the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

Selecting political actors

Political actors were selected with the help of key informants familiar with both the debate and its stakeholders. Moreover, member lists of national committees concerned with agricultural biotechnology and media coverage of the debate were screened in search of additional important stakeholder representatives. Most of those eventually selected to take part in the surveys were either from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with rural development and environmental issues and farmers' organizations, or government departments responsible for health, the environment, trade, agriculture, and science and technology. Other respondents included agronomists, biotechnologists, sociologists, and environmental scientists from local universities, representatives from agribusiness, organic agriculture and the food industry, the mass media and international organizations.

The questionnaire

Stakeholder representatives were asked to fill in a four part, semi-standardized questionnaire. They were first asked about their perceptions of the problems facing agriculture and the potential of genetic engineering (GE) to solve them. Secondly, they were required to react to positive and negative statements on the risks and benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Then an attempt was made to assess how much trust they had in existing institutions and in new approaches to risk reduction and legislation.

The final section of the questionnaire included a policy network table of about 70 stakeholder organizations. Respondents were asked to assess each other on attitudes to agricultural biotechnology and their influence on public opinion, political decisionmaking and the biotechnology debate. They were also asked whether they strongly associated certain organizations with particular individuals and whether they cooperated with these organizations on matters such as information exchange and funding.

Local partners in all three countries were closely involved in drafting the questionnaires and subsequent questions clearly reflected the character of the regional debate. In the Philippines, for example, the commercial cultivation and retailing of either locally developed or imported transgenic products had been prohibited and there was a heated debate over the risks and benefits of Bt rice. The Mexican survey, however, was drafted against a background of field tests, pilot projects with both locally developed and imported genetically modified (GM) crops, and the discussion on introducing specific and mandatory labelling legislation to deal with imports of genetically modified Bt corn from the United States.

Reactions and participation

A survey on public perceptions of agricultural biotechnology can easily become a political event in itself. In all three countries many political actors were suspicious of such research. Government officials were concerned about its political impact, anti-GE groups suspected hidden agendas, and scientists in private and public agricultural biotechnology research were not convinced of its usefulness. There was also some nationalist sentiment in the criticisms of those who objected to foreign research institutes initiating studies of local perceptions.

In spite of these objections and the length and complexity of the questionnaire, participation rates were surprisingly high: 65 political actors in the Philippines, 51 in Mexico and 48 in South Africa. Six months were allocated to the Philippines survey which may account for a higher participation rate there than in South Africa and Mexico where only one month was allocated because of funding constraints.

On average, 60 to 70 per cent of questionnaires were returned in each country. Our successful collaboration with local research institutes, considered trustworthy by both sides and which were able to allay nationalist objections, contributed significantly to the high participation rate. It also emerged that stakeholder representatives were motivated to take part because they were interested to find out how other stakeholders had assessed them and whether their perceptions matched average perceptions. By persistently following up questionnaires we were able to get even reluctant representatives to participate. It is significant that those who refused to take part did so not because they were suspicious of the project but because the questionnaire took so long to complete.

Data analysis

Data analysis consisted of a descriptive analysis of prevailing perceptions, a cluster analysis presenting an evaluation of different perception patterns, and a visual representation of the principal component analysis, which portrayed the perceptions of every single stakeholder on a two-dimensional scale. The policy network table data was subject to a simplified policy network analysis that revealed the influential stakeholders in the debate and the different types of cooperation among them. After the results had been collated, a workshop was held to present the findings, discuss the implications of the results and to evaluate the appropriateness of the survey.

Initial findings

Comparison of results to the questions put to respondents in the Philippines and Mexico exposed some interesting differences between the two countries. Most respondents in Mexico and the Philippines consider biotechnology to be 'just a new tool' with the potential to solve problems that currently cannot be addressed with conventional methods and to eventually contribute to future food security. While respondents in both countries disagree with the statement that GM foods pose a health risk, they expect GM crops to have a negative impact on biological diversity and are concerned that the implementation of biosafety guidelines will not be enforced properly.

Agronomic problems

Respondents in Mexico stressed the usefulness of biotechnology in combating agronomic problems such as drought, pests and plant disease that hinder agricultural productivity. Unlike respondents in the Philippines, they were more optimistic about the sustainability of GM crops and more sceptical of organic farming being a better alternative for resource-poor farmers. The efforts of farmers and NGOs in the Philippines to develop organic farming methods to ensure sustainable food security may be an important reason for the great expectations regarding organic farming.

Institutional factors

In both Mexico and the Philippines there was concern about the corporate control of agricultural biotechnology. Personal interviews in the Philippines and attitudes towards statements regarding Intellectual Property Rights (IRPs) in the Mexican survey indicated that some stakeholders in these countries would prefer to create their own domestic research capacities and design varieties that were more appropriate to addressing problems in domestic agriculture rather than simply importing GM crops from industrialized countries.

Both Mexico and the Philippines are home to large international agricultural research centres, such as the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, which are also exploring the possibilities of GE for the genetic improvement of food crops. As public perception and acceptance of GM crops is closely related to trust, an interesting outcome of the survey was that stakeholders in Mexico tend to consider CIMMYT a trustworthy but not very influential stakeholder in the national debate whereas this was not the case with IRRI in the Philippines. IRRI is considered to be a central actor in the Philippines and its presence in the country is considered more controversial. This difference in the perception of foreign institutions has also influenced the public debates in the countries themselves.

Biosafety and risk

Both countries were concerned about their countries' rich biological diversity. Mexican stakeholders were particularly worried about the potential of GM maize to outcross with local indigenous maize varieties. Filipino respondents expressed concern about the effects of pest resistant rice on non-target organisms. An analysis of the Mexican survey indicated that political stakeholders seemed to be informed about the discussion on the potential health and environmental risks of agricultural biotechnology but only a few were familiar with new approaches to reduce these risks.

Respondents in both countries had doubts that their national biosafety guidelines can be implemented effectively. In Mexico, respondents considered existing biosafety regulations to be inadequate whereas in the Philippines stakeholders regarded regulatory provisions to be sufficient. This difference may be explained by the fact that in 1991 the Philippines had already designed stringent biosafety guidelines for genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Mexico's regulatory biosafety framework mainly follows the USA though a recent initiative for a law on biosafety is currently under consideration, which includes the precautionary principle stated in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB).

Stakeholder perception

A cluster analysis of the data collected reflected the perceptions of various stakeholder groups. In the Philippines, for example, three clear patterns of perception emerged. NGOs and other public interest groups appeared to be largely opposed to GE and did not think it had any potential to solve agricultural problems. A second group made up of scientists from private and public research institutes were mainly positive towards GE and saw its potential in targeting problems caused by pests, viruses and exposure to stress. In the third cluster were government officials and politicians. They saw biotechnology as having considerable potential to solve many different agricultural problems but had an ambiguous attitude toward the potential risks and benefits of GE.

In the Mexican survey, the first cluster contained not only NGOs and other public interest groups but also representatives of government agencies (concerned with biosafety and environmental issues) and some academics. This group tended to have a negative attitude towards biotechnology. The second and largest group included scientists, government officials, politicians, NGO representatives and members of the business community and representatives of international organizations. These individuals tended to favour agricultural biotechnology and most believed in the potential of GE to solve agronomic and post-harvest problems. The third group was more strongly in favour of agricultural biotechnology and consisted of respondents from all institutional groups.


Most respondents included in the Mexican survey were scored moderate on a scale of perceptions and, generally speaking, positions adopted were less hard than in the Philippines. Filipinos were more frequently found on the outer reaches of the perception scale indicating a stronger degree of polarization. In both countries, there seems to be a significant perception gap between government departments. Agencies affiliated to the Department of Environment tend to be more critical of agricultural biotechnology than those dealing with trade, agriculture and science and technology. Interestingly, it would appear that the national debate in the Philippines was already polarized before concerns arose in Europe in the late 1990s.

Media and information

The policy network analysis indicated that Filipinos felt NGOs and the mass media exerted a strong influence on public opinion. Analysis of network cooperation revealed that NGOs in the Philippines play a crucial role in the acquisition and dissemination of information. Information sourced from national universities is sent to the legislature and mass media in the form of position papers. Civil society groups use public pressure created by media campaigns to influence political decisions.

This was not the case to the same extent in Mexico where public opinion, although influenced by a wide spectrum of stakeholders from different institutional settings, seemed to carry less weight. Mexican NGOs and the mass media were, however, seen as being important stakeholders in the political decision-making process.


In both countries, academia emerged as the central stakeholder in the agricultural biotechnology debate. In Mexico and the Philippines academic institutions are the most important distributors of information. They are significant players in the public debate on agricultural biotechnology and enjoy public confidence, playing a crucial role in facilitating constructive dialogues between the more antagonistic stakeholders.

Although a majority of respondents from academia have a favourable attitude towards agricultural biotechnology, they can be found in all three perception clusters. The reason why some academics have a critical attitude towards agricultural biotechnology may be that they see GE as an imported Western technology and not as the product of domestic research and development. This is particularly so in the Philippines where many local scientists are more involved with international research centres and multinational corporations than with national academia.

In addition, many academics from disciplines such as social science and ecology, work closely with Filipino NGOs in the research and development of alternative rice breeding and pest management programmes. The NGO research approach is considered to be home-grown and appeals to nationalist feelings, a factor that often plays a major role in the Filipino debate.

Feedback from the workshops

Workshops were held with respondents to evaluate the survey process and its results. A major criticism raised in both Mexico and the Philippines was that the perception of the farmers who ultimately have to choose whether or not to adopt transgenic crops had not been taken into account. This is a justifiable objection, but it was argued that these surveys were not intended to investigate the potential adoption rates of transgenic crops. The surveys sought, rather, to reach farmers through those who claimed to represent their interests in the national public debate. Whether these actors adequately represent farmers' perceptions and interests is a different question.

Stakeholder analysis indicated the political influence of the different farmer organizations and how much access they had to the political decision-making processes. It often turns out that resource-poor farmers are badly organized and under-represented in the national public debates. Many big national farmer organizations and NGOs claim to speak for marginal farmers but do not necessarily represent their interests well.

Workshop participants also stressed the importance of taking into account the opinions of all consumers and producers on transgenic food. However, the insistence that each opinion is equal in reason and value makes it impossible to find a common long-term policy that will minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of agricultural biotechnology by striking a compromise between different interests and perceptions. The failure to find a middle ground and design a pragmatic strategy may increase the real risks related to biotechnology, because political paralysis as an answer to uncertainty only creates more uncertainty.

In Mexico several respondents criticised the selection of political actors. The survey was conducted at a time when the long ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) had just lost the elections for the first time in 71 years and the new administration had replaced many of the political actors formerly involved in the biotechnology debate.

It is clear that there are difficulties in addressing the dynamic aspects of a public debate through surveys. However, interpreting the results of these surveys in the context of a particular political system and its cultural and historical background, may help to explain future political events and changes in perception and political influence of old and new political actors.


The aim of the overall research project was to understand the knowledge, perceptions and interests that shape debates on agricultural biotechnology in developing countries. The two surveys conducted in the Philippines and Mexico indicate that expectations and concerns about agricultural biotechnology may differ from those prevailing in developed countries. Moreover, a comparison of stakeholder perception in Mexico and the Philippines shows that the political, cultural and historical backgrounds significantly influence the issues that are discussed at the national level. The conclusions indicate that a global system of governance of biotechnology has to take into account perceptions specific to individual developing countries, not only to manage risk, but also to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of benefits.

Philipp Aerni

Center for International Development, Harvard University, 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge MA, 02138 USA.
Phone (+1) 617 495 37 98; Fax (+1) 617 496 96 82; Email Philip_aerni@havard.edu

Aerni, P. (2001), Public attitudes towards agricultural biotechnology in developing countries: A comparison between Mexico and the Philippines. Cambridge, USA: Center for International Development at Harvard University. The Times of India, New Delhi. http://www.cid.harvard.edu/cidbiotech/dp/index.html

Aerni, P., Anwander Phan-huy, S, Rieder, P. (1999), "Indications on public acceptance of transgenic rice in the Philippines." Biotechnology and Development Monitor No. 38, p. 18-21.

Sagar, A., Daemmrich, A, and Ashiya, M. (2000), "The tragedy of the commoners: biotechnology and its publics. (Commentary)" Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 18, p. 2-4.

Szompka, P. (1999), Trust: A sociological theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Luhmann, N. (1979), Trust and power. New York, USA: John Wiley & Sons.

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with  acknowledgement of source.


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