University of Saskatchewan 2018 Student Views on Biotechnology

Do the views between Bachelors of Science and non-science oriented students differ?

For the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to supervise a number of students working on their undergraduate thesis in the College of Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). I’ve really enjoy working with these strong students, who have an evident passion for agriculture. Because of their hard work, I thought I would have a series of blogs highlighting their unique results. Today’s blog is a summary of Jackson Wiebe‘s 2018 undergraduate thesis, looking at USask undergrad knowledge of biotech.

Does education influence our views on biotech?

Jackson’s research question was to assess whether a students’ education had an impact on their views about biotechnology. More specifically, whether students in science oriented undergraduate programs would have views that were more accepting of biotech than the views held by students in non-science oriented programs. His hypothesis was that students taking a core of science classes would have a greater likelihood of supporting biotechnology than students taking non-science courses. In total, Jackson surveyed 711 undergraduate students, of which 541 were enrolled in science programs and 170 from non-science programs. Science programs were defined as students enrolled in agriculture, healthcare and medicine or engineering, with non-science programs defined as arts, business and education. Since the College of Arts and Sciences represents both science and non-science, Jackson broke this college into the two fields based on how they responded to “which field do you work/study in?”. Jackson was able to survey just under 4% of the undergraduate students, with a 90% distribution of students aged 17-23, mostly from Alberta and Saskatchewan (85%), and with a larger representation of 1st and 2nd year students (78%), and the remaining as upper year students.

Figure 1: Participants based on college affiliation for biotechnology survey
Figure 1: Participants based on college affiliation

Student awareness of biotech

Granted the large number of Prairie students, it’s no surprise that the majority of students had heard of genetically modified organisms (GMOs or GM) (94.1%), genetic engineering (89.5%), gene editing (72.9%) and conventional plant breeding (61.9%). However, when looking at second levels of knowledge, their understanding of a GM crop variety was not as certain. Science-based college students typically determined GM crops at a rate of 9% greater for GM crops. Science oriented students seemed to know which crops are GM, however, they do not seem to know what crops are not GM, and typically answered incorrectly 3% higher that non-GM crops were in fact GM crops. GM varieties of corn, soybeans and canola are produced in Canada.

While there was a slight advantage of science-based college Usask students knowing the major GM crops, the lack of understanding of non-GM crops, raised the question, do students need to know the difference? If students are trying to avoid purchasing GMOs, or desire labelling of GM foods, then Jackson would have expected students to be more aware of GM vs non-GM crops. Jackson’s results of GMs and non-GMs is justified based on student efforts to avoid GM foods, in which less than 14% of students made the effort to avoid GM. The number of non-science-based people who avoid buying GM foods is 5.2% higher and the amount that do not avoid buying GM foods is 12.4% higher in science-based colleges. Of the results, there was a greater difference between genders than bachelor’s credentials, as females were 10% more likely to avoid buying GM foods.

It is also not surprising to see that more than 52% of students stated a preference for GM food labelling. Given their lack of knowing what isn’t a GM food, having a label could be of benefit, if they wish to avoid GMs, or perhaps support them. The sample of non-science-based students wanted labelling, on average 15.7% more, than those in science-based programs.

When asked about their willingness to consumer GM foods, the results suggest that science-based education students will consume GM products more readily than those in non-science-based education. When asked about available GM foods of salmon, papaya, potato and sweet corn, over half of all students were willing to consume these different GM foods, depending on the food. Science-based respondents were 17% more likely to purchase and consume salmon, 9.7% in the case of papaya, 6.4% with potato and 8% with sweet corn.

Salmon Papaya Potato Sweet Corn
Science 68.8 72.1 87.6 82.1
Non-Science 51.8 62.4 81.2 74.1

Based on this survey, undergraduate students at the U of S enrolled in science-based education programs have a slightly higher acceptance for GM products, although they only have marginally more knowledge. This can be seen when looking at GM foods such as salmon, papaya, potato and sweet corn. Science oriented students may be more familiar with the process about what is required to make a GMO, although this is unlikely as knowledge did not seem to be significantly higher when asked which crops grown in Canada are GM.

Jackson Wiebe

Jackson Wiebe graduated from the University of Saskatchewan in 2018 with a B.S.A. He is currently working as an agronomist north of Saskatoon as well as farming with his wife Erin.

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Stuart Smyth
Dr. Stuart Smyth, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, at the University of Saskatchewan for over a decade. He holds the Agri-Food Innovation and Sustainability Enhancement Chair & is the vision behind SAIFood.
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