1 Department of Marketing and Statistics, Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University2 MAPP - Centre for Research on Customer Relations in the Food Sector, Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University3 Marketing and Sustainability, Aarhus School of Business, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University4 Department of Economics and Business Economics, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University5 Department of Economics and Business Economics, Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University
In recent years, considerable effort has been made to improve governance and communication in the field of emerging technologies. Existing evidence suggests that public skepticism towards emerging technologies is rooted in unfamiliarity and uncertainty. Tacitly, it is often assumed that established technologies cannot suffer from such problems simply because they are not new. However, such a conclusion may be premature: the fact that a technology is not new does not necessarily mean that the public regard it as familiar and unproblematic; the technology may simply never have become a public issue yet. One technology where such a latent crisis potential has often been suspected is mutation breeding. Mutation breeding is a standard technique in the development of new crop cultivars, known since the 1930s, typically involving the use of ionizing radiation to induce alterations in the genomes of crop plants. Unlike crop cultivars developed by newer techniques such as genetic engineering, mutation-bred cultivars are not subject to special types of horizontal regulation in any UN country. Based on representative survey data (N = 1000), public attitudes towards mutation breeding were compared with attitudes towards several other agricultural and food biotechnologies in terms of evaluative extremity, strength, and structure. Among the technologies included in the survey, mutation breeding was by far the most negatively evaluated one (substantially more so than genetic engineering). At the same time, participants reported the highest degree of uncertainty in their attitudes towards mutation breeding. Structurally, attitudes towards mutation breeding shared many properties with attitudes towards genetic engineering. It can be concluded that there is a considerable crisis potential associated with mutation breeding: if protest groups target the technology and manage to make it into a public issue, the agricultural sector may face a PR crisis that might become even more destructive than the genetic engineering debate of the 1990s.