Nov 26 2018

New Pew Survey About GMOs

The Pew Research Center has recently published a large survey regarding American’s attitudes toward food, including genetic modification, food additives, and organics. There are some interesting findings buried in the data that are worth teasing out.

First, some of the top line results. They found that 49% of Americans feel that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are bad for health, while 44% said they were neutral, and 5% said they were better. So the public is split right down the middle over the health effects of GMOs. The 49% who feel that GMOs are bad for health is up from 39% when they gave the same survey in 2016 – so unfortunately, we have lost ground on this issue.

Breaking these numbers down, we find that women are a little more likely to fear GMOs as a health risk than men, 56% compared to 43%. I suspect this is due primarily to differences in how anti-GMO messages are marketed, and the general marketing of pseudoscience to women (the Goop effect). This is also significant because women are more likely to make food purchasing decisions for their families.

Even more interesting is the relationship between science knowledge and fear of GMO’s – among those with a high degree of science knowledge, 38% thought GMOs had health risks, while 52% of those with a low degree of science knowledge thought so. The same pattern is seen through all the subquestions about GMOs. For example, 49% of those with a high degree of science knowledge believe GMOs have the potential to increase the global food supply, while only 20% of those with a low degree of science knowledge believe this.

The biggest difference, though, was for those who said they cared very much about the issue of GMO, 80% said that GMOs have health risks, while only 20% of those who said they care little about the issue of GMOs said they have health risks. This makes sense as you are likely to care more about the issue if you think there is a risk.

If we back up and look at all the numbers, what story are they telling us? First, even among those with a relatively high scientific knowledge, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and unnecessary fear surrounding GMOs. Compare these numbers to the 88% of members of AAAS who feel that GMOs are safe. There remains a significant difference between the consensus of scientific opinion and the public perception on GMOs.

Further, the public largely feels that scientists are divided on this issue, when they are not. Every major scientific organization who has expressed an opinion on GMOs agree that the evidence shows the technology is safe, and the currently approved GMOs are safe.

There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that science knowledge, however, does correlate with improved knowledge about the safety and positive potential of GMOs. It does seem overall that attitudes about food in general and GMOs in particular are changeable. They are not tied to any particular political ideology. In other words – this is an issue where we can potentially move the needle through simple education about the facts.

Of course, we have to additionally counter the misinformation campaign by the green and organic movements. They are actively spreading unwarranted fears of GMOs and demonizing the technology. In the survey positive attitudes towards organics correlate with negative attitudes toward GMOs.

The survey also covered issues such as pesticides and food additives, with similar findings as with GMOs. So this is part of a bigger issue regarding food safety, our food supply, and its effects on the environment. These ideas are presented as a package deal, with the appeal to nature narrative tying them together. According to this world view, anything does to alter food is by definition unnatural and bad.

We need to get the public away from this simplistic narrative to an evidence-based approach. The fact is, those who have negative attitudes toward GMOs are basing their negative opinions on misinformation and a misunderstanding of the science. The anti-GMO campaign is an anti-science movement, as much as global warming denial or the anti-vaccine movement. I have yet to hear a valid criticism of GMOs as a technology, or a single complaint that does not have misinformation at its core. Anti-GMO talking points simply get the facts wrong.

The above links go into detail, but to quickly summarize: GMOs have not been linked to negative health outcomes, and there are thousands of studies looking at GMOs, more than half of which are independently funded. Use of GMOs have not been linked to Indian farmer suicide. Monsanto did not sue any farmers over accidental contamination, and never marketed a terminator seed. Farmers don’t save their seeds anyway, and you cannot save and replant hybrid seeds (which are most of the non-GMO crops). Not all GMOs are patented, and many non-GMO crops are patented (such as most hybrid breeds). Use of GMOs has actually decreased insecticide use, and has allowed the use of less toxic herbicides. Use of GMOs correlates with higher overall yields and increased profits for farmers. There have been no GMOs on the market that have caused allergies or new toxicity.

Further, GMOs currently being researched have the potential to fortify staple crops with important nutrients (like vitamin A enriched rice), to resist blight and disease, to be drought-tolerant, and to improve yield through a variety of mechanisms. The bottom line is that we need this technology to feed the world’s increasing population, and mitigate the expansion of farmland into natural habitats. Being anti-GMO is being anti-science, and anti-environment.

While we do need to also teach critical thinking, counter conspiracy thinking, and promote a science-based approach, on this issue simply correcting factual errors will likely have a huge impact by itself. This is because the public has been systematically lied to over decades, and those lies have generated unwarranted fears. The scientific community needs to take this issue head on, to correct public misinformation. They can’t complain about the disconnect between their beliefs and public beliefs while doing too little to correct it.

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