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Thomas Hoban - Biotech's Leading Propagandist/Pollster

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  • Robert Sterling
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com Professor Thomas Hoban: Biotech s Leading
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 30, 2000
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      Please send as far and wide as possible.

      Thanks,

      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist
      http://www.konformist.com


      Professor Thomas Hoban: Biotech's Leading Propagandist/Pollster in
      the USA
      PR Watch <www.prwatch.org/> Volume 6 #4 Fourth Quarter 1999

      The Professor Who Can Read Your Mind

      by Karen Charman

      Tom Hoban is a man with a mission: to convince people to embrace
      genetically
      engineered food. I had the opportunity to experience this firsthand
      at the
      Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) annual conference in New
      York City in
      June 1998 while we were lining up for lunch. Seeing the press pass
      dangling
      around my neck, he made a beeline for me and proceeded to attempt to
      educate me about the wonders of food biotechnology.

      That might not seem strange--plenty of people push biotech--but Hoban
      is
      not a public relations flack or salesman at a company peddling biotech
      food. He is a
      professor in the sociology department at North Carolina State
      University
      (NCSU).
      Hoban specializes in consumer behavior and the psychology of
      conflict, a
      position that gives him a veneer (but only a thin veneer) of
      objectivity.

      Industry promoters widely regard Hoban as the pre-eminent expert in
      consumer
      attitudes on gene-altered food, and he is listed in several industry
      source
      guides for journalists. Over the last ten years, he has conducted a
      number
      of government-and industry-funded surveys, which he says consistently
      show
      "two-thirds to three-quarters of U.S. consumers are positive about
      food
      biotechnology." Considering the controversy swirling around biotech
      food
      overseas and the likelihood that it will erupt on these shores, such a
      finding must be comforting to industry. His data, however, is
      questionable.

      Hoban says he helped design the questions in a much-touted consumer
      survey
      conducted for the International Food Information Council (IFIC) but
      carried
      out by the Republican political and polling firm, the Wirthlin Group.
      The
      survey was first done in March 1997 and then repeated in February
      1999,
      ostensibly so that a trend could be established. Besides trumpeting
      strong
      support for genetically engineered food, the nine-question survey
      indicates
      that consumer awareness of biotech food is low. It also claims there
      is
      little support for labeling biotech foods.

      The problem with the survey, however, is that the questions it asked
      are loaded
      with language designed to bias the answers. Examples include:

      "How likely would you be to buy a variety of produce, like tomatoes or
      potatoes, if it had been modified by biotechnology to taste better or
      "fresher?"

      "How likely would you be to buy a variety of produce . . . if it had
      been
      modified by biotechnology to be protected from insect damage and
      required
      fewer pesticide applications?"

      "Biotechnology has also been used to enhance plants that yield foods
      like
      cooking oils. . . . Would this have a positive effect, a negative
      effect, or no
      effect on your purchase decision?"

      "Some critics . . . say that any food produced through biotechnology
      should be
      labeled even if the food has the same safety and nutritional content
      as other
      foods. However, others, including the FDA, believe such a labeling
      requirement has no scientific basis, and would be costly and
      confusing to
      consumers. Are you more likely to agree with the labeling position of
      the FDA
      or with its critics?"

      James Beniger, a communications professor at the University of
      Southern
      California and past president of the American Association for Public
      Opinion
      Research, reviewed the IFIC survey and said it is so biased with
      leading
      questions favoring positive responses that any results are
      meaningless.
      UCLA communications professor Michael Suman agreed, adding that the
      questions "only talk about the food tasting better, being fresher,
      protecting food from insect damage, reducing saturated fat and
      providing
      benefits. It's like saying 'Here's biotechnology, it does these great
      things for you, do you like it?'" The results might be different,
      Suman
      offers, if it contained questions biased in the other direction such
      as:
      "Some people contend that some foods produced from biotechnology cause
      higher rates of cancer. If that is so, what effect would that have on
      your
      buying decision?"

      Ignorance is bliss

      Hoban's rap, either while presenting a paper at a biotech industry
      conference or
      in a one-on-one interview, is equally questionable. It goes something
      like
      this (my paraphrase): "The public is much more positive about food
      biotechnology than the activists would have you believe. Most people
      don't
      know much about
      biotechnology, but that's because it is not important to them.
      Americans--unlike
      Europeans who have been through traumatizing food scares--have great
      trust
      in the public agencies that regulate our food supply. Since the FDA
      says
      genetically modified food is safe, that is good enough for most. The
      FDA
      position on labeling is sensible because a label for biotech food
      would
      only confuse consumers and hike the cost. Activist types are
      suspicious of
      biotechnology, but they are probably technophobic and only represent a
      minority view. Biotechnology is no different than what crop breeders
      have
      been doing all along--it's just more sophisticated and more precise,
      so
      what's the big deal? People support biotechnology in food because it
      will
      benefit them. People's views on food are based on whether they think
      it
      will bring them a tangible benefit--fresher, better taste,
      convenience,
      higher nutrition, and
      price. Environmental and food safety concerns only surface if there is
      irresponsible and sensational media attention that stirs up fear.
      Besides,
      biotechnology is good for farmers, and Americans--unlike Europeans--
      like to
      support their farmers."

      At industry gatherings, Hoban emphasizes--and pokes fun at--the
      scientific
      illiteracy of the general public. At the BIO meeting, after telling
      his
      audience that consumers decide what food to buy based on taste,
      value, and
      convenience, not on how the seed was produced, he quipped: "Lots of
      American consumers probably don't know seeds are involved in
      agriculture--they don't even know farms are involved in agriculture."



      "Everybody's going to be
      using biotech foods
      pretty soon, so there
      won't be a lot of alternatives."

      --Professor-cum-Pollster Tom Hoban



      In a recent telephone interview, he said that when he asks people
      about
      concerns critics have been raising about the technology, most
      respondents only
      express a vague sense that biotech may result in some unwanted and
      unanticipated
      consequences somewhere down the line. But again, ignorance shapes
      their
      response. "People tend to think the positive is going to outweigh the
      negative when we describe it for them. In general, they don't know
      enough
      about it to get into all the details--that a plant is going to
      somehow have
      its genes transferred to another plant," he said. "When you present
      that to
      people in a focus group, they will scratch their head and not really
      know
      what you are talking about."

      Comfort Food

      Hoban sees such public ignorance as a great opportunity for industry
      to
      "proactively educate" consumers to gain trust in biotechnology. At
      the BIO
      meeting, he complimented biotech companies and industry groups like
      IFIC
      and BIO for "paving the way for biotechnology in the U.S." and making
      the
      public "comfortable" to the point that he predicted genetically
      engineered
      food "will not be an issue for the vast majority of consumers."

      Hoban miscalculated the extent to which genetically engineered food
      has
      become an issue in Europe. At the June 1998 BIO meeting, he said
      activist
      groups
      like Greenpeace had gotten all the media attention but they didn't
      really
      represent the average European consumer. Today he concedes the biotech
      industry made some mistakes in being too aggressive about pushing the
      technology and not
      labeling the products so that European consumers could make their own
      choices.
      However, he blames most of Europe's reaction on an out-of-control
      media that
      "terrorized" European citizens with daily headlines of Frankenfood,
      combined with the aftershocks of betrayal over mad cow disease in
      England
      and dioxin
      contamination in Belgium.

      European controversy or not, Hoban doesn't seem to be too worried
      about the
      future prospects of the industry. He says non-GMO products are
      becoming
      difficult to find, and "everybody's going to be using biotech foods
      pretty
      soon, so there won't be a lot of alternatives."

      Expert for Hire--Attorney Included

      A short biography of Hoban precedes an interview with him that
      appeared in the
      May 1996 issue of PBI Bulletin, a publication of the Canadian
      National Research
      Council. It describes him as an Associate Professor and Extension
      Sociology
      Specialist at NCSU whose "main responsibilities involve working with
      government
      agencies, industry and others to improve the assessment and transfer
      of new
      technologies." Much of his work "focuses on how people accept new
      products and
      respond to change," including "ethical and educational implications of
      biotechnology." Besides a PhD in rural sociology, Hoban has master's
      degrees in
      agricultural journalism and water resource management, plus a BS in
      biology.

      Hoban advertises his social research consultant services on his own
      web page
      (sasw.chass.ncsu.edu/~tom/). The page says he has "unique and
      interdisciplinary
      perspectives" and "provides a practical focus for managing change."
      It also
      says, "Dr. Hoban provides timely advice and expert assistance in a
      number
      of areas including: consumer response to new products; public
      perceptions
      of food
      biotechnology; management of innovation and change; public opinion
      about
      technology and the environment; and issue and crisis management."
      Specific
      skills listed include: "survey and focus group research; team
      building and
      partnering; strategic planning; policy analysis; needs assessment; and
      technology forecasting."

      Hoban was out of the country when I called to ask who his clients
      are, so I
      called NCSU to request the "External Professional Activities For Pay"
      forms
      that the university requires its faculty to file when they take on
      outside
      work. The university replied that the forms were "confidential
      personnel
      information" and refused to provide them. When I called Hoban later to
      request the information, he refused and was furious that I had
      contacted
      the university. He added that he had checked out PR Watch, found it
      to be
      very biased, and threatened that his attorney would look closely at
      anything we wrote.



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