Think of a science denier, and you might picture someone arguing that climate change isn’t real or vaccines cause autism. But the biggest chasm between scientists and the public is actually over GMOs: 88% of U.S. scientists say genetically modified foods are safe to eat, and only 37% of Americans agree.
Why are we–and much of the rest of the world–resistant to GMOs? A team of biotech scientists and philosophers argue in a recent article inTrends in Plant Science that the answer lies in human psychology. Since few people take the time to dive into the details of every scientific study on the subject, we’re easily swayed by arguments that tap into what we already intuitively expect. Most of our thinking, the authors say, is based on intuition.
As the paper says:
The intuitive mind is not well equipped to address intricate questions, such as ‘what is biotechnology?’, ‘how does it work?’, or, most importantly, ‘is it dangerous?’ The ability to understand such issues and, hence, to have a subsequent objective and rational judgment requires an important effort and, even then, the mind is still liable to relapse into biased thinking. Lay people are often unable or are simply not interested in investing large amounts of time and energy to acquire a profound grasp of complex technologies.
One of the reasons we might reject the idea of GMOs is an intuitive sense of disgust–we tend to see genetic modification as contamination of food, and then instinctively believe that the food might be unsafe. People also tend to have a belief in “essentialism”–that something is essentially one thing or another, and if you stick a fish gene in a tomato, you’re fundamentally changing what a tomato is. Another line of intuitive thought sees genetically modified organisms as “playing God” or “unnatural,” despite the fact that plant breeding has happened throughout the history of farming.
That’s not to say that the technology–like any technology–can’t be badly used (especially by a few large corporations that control most of the seed supply). Herbicide-resistant crops, for example, are already leading to superweeds in some places. But the researchers argue that’s because of misuse, not an inherent flaw in the technology as a whole.
“Herbicide resistance in weeds is the result of bad agricultural practices and natural selection,” says lead author Stefaan Blancke, who co-authored the opinion piece with the biotechnologist Marc Van Montagu, founder of Ghent University’s Institute of Plant Biotechnology Outreach. (Montagu is a longtime advocate and researcher in the field of GMOs–he received the World Food Prize in 2013, along with scientists from Syngenta Biotechnology and Monsanto.)
“If one grows herbicide-resistant crops year after year then the selection pressure on weeds becomes very strong and so one can expect herbicide resistance to pop up.” In places where the crops have been planted “correctly,” like Canada, Blancke says that there haven’t been problems with resistance. And herbicide-resistant crops are only one type of the technology; others boost nutrition or improve other farming practices.
Rationally, GMO crops aren’t inherently different from other breeding techniques that people already trust–so even though we can’t know with 100% certainty that the plants won’t have negative effects, there’s also no reason to think that they will. “There is nothing specific about the technology of genetic modification that would make it more risky,” Blancke says. “On the contrary, in comparison with these other breeding techniques, scientists have a much better idea of what is happening at the genetic level.”
The precautionary principle, the argument that society shouldn’t use new technology if there’s a chance of a negative outcome, holds us back from progress, Blancke says. “The evidence shows that current applications bring serious health and environmental benefits, and financial benefits to farmers in developing countries,” he says. “To block this technology on the basis of the precautionary principle would be a huge mistake.”
There’s a little evidence that attitudes are changing: When Chipotle recently announced that it was taking GMO ingredients off menus, the press attacked. Still, public opinion probably has a long way to go.
“The fastest route to acceptance is that consumers recognize that the technology yields direct personal benefits and are thereby motivated to overcome their intuitive resistance,” says Blancke. “The slowest, but perhaps most durable route, is via education. If people learn about GMOs, genetics, agriculture and so on they might become immune to negative and wrong representations of the technology.”