Understanding GMO opposition


DESPITE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE that supports the value and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), public opposition to them has been, and might always be, strong. Why is that? Scientists and researchers at Ghent University in Belgium believe they have an explanation.

In a recent paper, Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition, post-doctoral researcher Stefaan Blancke explains the reasoning behind the discrepancy between public opinion and scientific evidence. Blancke, a researcher in the department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at Ghent University, says that previous explanations for opposition weren’t enough. While the explanations — among them post-Christian beliefs, romantic notions about nature, and the lack of direct benefits for consumers — are on track, Blancke says that they fail to explain why opposition occurs in non-Christian cultures and why people do not reject every technology that brings no immediate benefits to consumers. It also doesn’t explain why people prefer romantic views, he says.

Using what Blancke calls a “cognitive approach,” he and the paper’s co-authors bring together ideas from the cognitive sciences, evolutionary psychology, and culture to rationalize the particular facets of opposition to GM technology.

“We argue that intuitions and emotions make the mind highly susceptible to particular negative representations of GMOs,” says Blancke. “We propose ways to rectify the current situation and improve science education and communication.”

In a meeting with Blancke and his colleague, Geert De Jaeger, a plant biotechnology professor at Ghent University, the pair explained how intuition tends to generate adequate responses in everyday situations. But intuition, they say, can break down when more complex or abstract ideas are confronted. Furthermore, if not dealt with through education, cognitive predispositions can result in deeply engrained biases that will persist no matter what the science says.

Blancke and De Jaeger say the European response has been different than in other parts of the world because GM technology was launched in a very different environment. For one, green organizations had much more power in European media and politics than they did in North America, which means that they were able to spread their messages much quicker.

Between 1996 and 1998, for example, Greenpeace launched in Europe and took up GM as one of its causes, says De Jaeger. The result was that they triggered emotions that were already in the minds of people.

Then there was the Pusztai controversy, which began in 1998. Árpád Pusztai, a United Kingdom-based scientist who was studying GM potatoes, publicly announced unpublished research claiming that the GM potatoes stunted growth and repressed immune systems. While he was suspended and banned from speaking publicly again, the damage was done.

Finally, following a series of food scandals in the 1990s, including Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the European Commission suggested the establishment of an independent European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that would be responsible for independent scientific advice on all aspects of food safety.

When one considers the environment of those years, it’s no surprise that GM technology never really stood a chance. At the time, though, no one saw it coming. De Jaeger and Blancke said that the scientific community expected that the public would accept GM technology spontaneously and “welcome it with open arms”.

“But, of course, they realized that that was not happening and then it was already too late because now you are in the defense position,” says Blancke. 

“We were not really expecting that the atmosphere in Europe would flip so fast,” agrees De Jaeger. “We immediately realized that it would be a huge issue coming up, but we simply were not prepared. I think we expected too much that the advantages of the technology would be sufficient to convince the people that this was a start of a technology that could make a difference.”

The researchers’ paper makes several interesting observations that explain the intuitive appeal of anti-GMO thinking. The human mind, they say, intuitively understands how the biological world functions.

“One constituent of this folk biology is psychological essentialism that amounts to the belief that organisms hold an unobservable, immutable core determining their identity and, thus, their development and behaviour,” says Blancke.

This likely explains why people show a preference for cisgenic organisms (plants containing no foreign genes) over transgenic organisms (those that have been modified with genetic material from another species).

But it’s not just psychological essentialism that influences thinking. Teleological thinking or religious beliefs also come into play. “GMO opponents accuse scientists who produce transgenic plants of ‘playing God’ and condemn their acts as against nature,” says Blancke. “Biotech food is often referred to as ‘Frankenfood’, suggesting that, as with Mary Shelley’s artificial creature, the technology will escape the control of the haughty scientists and result in horrific environmental doom scenarios.”

For De Jaeger, the paper was eye opening. “It clarified a lot,” he says. “I never was able to get a grip on the reason why the public was so opposed. Suddenly, I realized that with pure rationality it would be extremely difficult to explain what was happening. There were emotions behind it.”

While both Blancke and De Jaeger understand how public aversion to GM technology thrives, they were less clear on how to tackle that opposition. De Jaeger thinks that they should not only keep telling the facts of science but also explain the role of emotion to the public.

“I think we should also explain to people so that they are aware of the psychology behind their opinions and that these emotions are misleading them,” he says.

“I don’t think the [scientific] community should tackle those who oppose GM technology,” says Blancke. “I think they should go for the middle ground.”

And that’s just what organizations like EuropaBio do; they go for the middle ground. “NGOs are very vocal here,” says Katarzyna Jasik, communications manager of Agricultural Biotechnology at EuropaBio. “They are very good at that emotional fear mongering. It is something that is very difficult to tackle.”

Fear travels, often into the minds of European Union (EU) decision makers who want to keep votes come next election, says Jasik. “But when they do stand up for science, they see more acceptance,” she says.

EuropaBio works to educate the public and the middle ground by using social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, and through company on-site visits, like the trip to Bayer CropScience they planned for EU Biotech week. So far, their work has been successful. This year, the event attracted 35 curious minds. Of those, 25 were EU policymakers. •