The scary truth behind fear of GMOs

“First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” said President Franklin D. Roosevelt, about the hunger and desperation of the American people during the depression. Today, there is also fear, though we are in a time of relative plenty.

The National Science Foundation surveys a representative sample of Americans every two years. The General Social Survey asks about general attitudes about science in general and about specific science topics. For a quick overview of the highlights, see Everything Americans Know About Science in Seven Graphs by Sara Chodosh.

One positive finding: Americans are worried about climate change. Whether that translates into action or political will is another question. In this post, I’ll focus on the questions about genetically engineered foods, commonly called GMOs. According to the NSF, “data suggest that concern about GE food is increasing”.

Fear of GMOs is increasing

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NSF General Social Survey data showing public assessment of the danger of modifying genes of crops to the environment. Responses from all adults shown (n = 1,276 in 2000; 1,430 in 2010; 911 in 2016). Graph by Anastasia Bodnar.

The results from 2016 are strikingly different from results in 2000 and 2010. The number of respondents who find GMOs dangerous shot up to 79% in 2016, while just 18% thought GMOs are not dangerous, and 4% said they did not know. People are becoming more certain in their fear, not a good sign.

Women were more fearful than men. Those with more science knowledge or higher levels of education are less fearful than those who have less knowledge or are less educated. Age was not a factor. The fear of GMOs is confirmed by other research on public opinion, such as by Pew Research Center’s comparison of how scientists and the public view science issues.

These results may not accurately describe how Americans feel about GMOs. If you ask people what are the top things they are concerned about when it comes to food, GMOs hardly make the list. People care much more about quality and cost. For example, in a 2013 study from Rutgers University, researchers asked “What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already on there?” Only 7% raised the issue of GMO labeling, and only 6% wanted more info about where or how the food was grown or processed. When people are specifically asked about GMOs, the number of people who want them labeled increases sharply. An overwhelming majority of people also want mandatory labels on food containing DNA, when asked specifically about DNA in food. Prompting people about specific food characteristics clearly leads to results that are skewed higher than if questions are asked without a prompt.

Why are people so afraid of GMOs?

Selling fear is lucrative. It’s really hard to fundraise when your message is “food is pretty safe”. Multiple organizations and individuals have made names for themselves by scaring people about GMOs. Journalists, trained to seek out both sides of a story, often give these organizations and individuals space to promote their biased, incorrect information. While I think a fair amount of blame can be placed in the hands of a few, there are some larger issues here.

Little red barn. Photo of Woodchuck Farm by William Garrett, enhanced by Dianne Lacourciere using textures by Distressed Jewel.

Little red barn. Photo of Woodchuck Farm by William Garrett, enhanced by Dianne Lacourciere using textures by Distressed Jewel.

People accept all sorts of technologies in medicine and cosmetics but have different ideas when it comes to food. Most of us have an idyllic scene in our minds of a little red barn and some peaceful cows, maybe an apple tree. The realities of farming have never met that image, but while we might be able to accept a robot apple picker, many of us don’t like the idea of pesticides, manipulated genes, or even “chemicals” in our food. Organic and “natural” food marketing have taken advantage of this idyllic view of farming.

As farming has become more industrialized and more efficient, the number of farms (and number of farmers) has steeply declined. Most people don’t know any farmers, and have never visited a farm. Consumers don’t understand why a farmer might need to use pesticides or the economic forces causing farm consolidation. The media rightly publicizes stories like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, but people aren’t hearing stories about how technologies and practices are making farms more sustainable. Larger concerns about industrialization and consolidation have been projected onto biotechnology, such that all ills of agriculture are blamed on GMOs.

Scientists and science communicators are also partially to blame for GMO fear. The language we choose influences what people see. Academic and government sources tend to use the terms biotechnology, transgenic, or genetic engineering, and rarely use the term GMO. That means that scientific or government sources rarely appear when people are searching for information on this topic. You can see the effect of language by doing an image search for the different terms. Imagery matters, and the imagery associated with GMOs is not accurate to say the least.

Lastly, we may at least partially blame irrational fears about GMOs on the Russians. Yes, the Russians. As reported in the Des Moines Register, Russian propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik “produced more articles containing the word GMO than five [US] news organizations combined.” Further, “RT and Sputnik overwhelmingly portrayed genetic modification in a negative light.” The preprint is now available: Sowing the seeds of skepticism: Russian state news and the anti-GMO movement. The propaganda fits with a resurgence of anti-science sentiment in Russia.

Does it matter what people think about GMOs?

Fear of biotechnology can have negative impacts, both for current agriculture, and as we look to the future. Currently, we have only a handful of foods that are genetically engineered. See my post How to Avoid GMOs to learn exactly which ones. The GMOs we have are being used for good reasons. Virus resistant papaya saved the papaya industry. Without it, Hawaiian papaya farmers would go out of business. Insect resistant corn has reduced insecticide use, decreased deadly fungal toxins, and increased yields. Herbicide tolerant soybeans allowed farmers to use a less toxic herbicide (though not so much in corn). These aren’t perfect, but they have provided value to farmers, to the environment, and to consumers. Take those options away, and agriculture becomes less sustainable, not more.

Fear of biotechnology matters more as we look to the future. Traditional breeding is powerful, but has its limits. There are hundreds if not thousands of examples of biotech traits that could be hugely beneficial, if only they could be commercialized and accepted by consumers. Just in the past few months, there have been papers about rice with decreased arsenic, disease resistant wheathealthier oil from soybeans, and salt tolerant soybeans.

If you can find a gene or group of genes that causes a desired trait, biotechnology can potentially be used to edit the genes directly (gene editing), to cause a gene or genes to be expressed in a new tissue or at higher levels (cisgenesis), or to move a gene or genes from one species into another (transgenesis). Gene editing might replace some need for cisgenesis and transgenesis. But activist groups see gene editing as just more GMOs. And even if gene editing can escape overly stringent regulation, developers still have to face public opinion.

Here’s just one example of the damage that can be caused by irrational fear of biotechnology. Drought tolerant corn has already proceeded through safety approvals in South Africa and is available for purchase. Unfortunately, many other African countries continue to restrict or ban use of agricultural biotechnology, despite proven benefits. Tanzania allowed field trials, but ultimately required all of the grain to be burned while people in the country go hungry.

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