Why GM food is so hard to sell to a wary public

Why GM food is so hard to sell to a wary public
A ‘natural’ apple? This robot doesn’t care. Credit: Aidan, CC BY

Whether commanding the attention of rock star Neil Young or apparently being supported by the former head of Greenpeace, genetically modified food is almost always in the news – and often in a negative light.

GM divides opinion, and even individual people can find themselves pulled in two different ways. On the one hand it is a largely new technology and new tech often brings prosperity, solves problems and offers hope for the future. But this also makes it a step into the unknown and people are frightened of what they do not know, or what cannot be known.

In a study recently published in the journal Appetite, colleagues and I examined why some people reject GM technology. We were neither arguing for nor against GM, but rather we wanted to look at the characteristics which determine people's views.

Specifically, we examined attitudes in the EU to two different types of genetic modifications made to apples. Both involve the introduction of genes to make them resistant to mildew and scab. The first is a gene that exists naturally in wild/crab apples. This is an example of what is called "cisgenesis". In the second one the gene is from another species such as a bacterium or animal, and is an example of "transgenesis".

As an idea of the gains available from this process, the production of a new apple cultivar may take 50 years or more. Gene transfer technologies can substantially shorten this. At the same time they may introduce characteristics from totally alien species which is virtually impossible to do naturally. This may then introduce many desirable qualities into the apple – for instance, in the hypothetical case we are analysing, the apples were made more resistant to disease.

We found people's attitudes tend to be driven by their fears of risk, and their hopes of gain, with hopes being more important for cisgenesis (introduced genes from other apples) and the former for transgenesis (genes from other species).

But quite separate to risk and gain are perceptions that the technologies are "not natural". Evidently people are disturbed when science takes us away from what they see as the laws of nature. People are also concerned about environmental impact.

Digging into the data

Our data is based on a Eurobarometer survey carried out in 2010 of 15,650 people from around the EU. In general people seem to be more hesitant about transgenesis, than cisgenesis (apple to apple ). Thus 57.1% of respondents wished to see cisgenesis encouraged compared to just 31.4% for transgenesis. Clearly people are more worried about having animal genes in their apples, compared to genes from wild apples.

Attitudes are not spread randomly across the population. Rather there are systematically different views dependent on gender, level of education, home background, whether in a village or a large town and across different countries.

Men are significantly more likely to support cisgenesis, for example, as are better educated and more prosperous people. Religion is also important and Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are significantly less approving than the general population.

People are more united in their disapproval of transgenesis (adding genes from other species). But, again, more educated people tend to be more approving as do men and the more prosperous, while older people tend to be more wary. Finally, for both technologies studying science, or having a father who studied science, impacted favourably on attitudes.

Some figures show the impact of religion: compared to the 31.4% who approved of transgenesis overall, just 23.3% of Orthodox Christians did so. The situation is reversed for cisgenesis with 57.1% approving overall, but Greek Orthodox Christians now more supportive with 60.9% approving. It is now Muslims who are substantially less supportive with only 40.6% approving.

This is an example of how religious diversity leads to differing opinions on new technologies. Thus if a government wishes to encourage GM technology, it might give some thought to opening up dialogue with religious leaders.

The great GM catch-up

The EU is one of the world's toughest places to gain approval for GM crops, in part because of these concerns expressed by its citizens. This has resulted in the EU falling behind other countries.

The more positive attitudes of scientists and better educated people may suggest wariness of GM foods is simply driven by ignorance. Increasing knowledge and understanding would help reduce this, but there may be limits – in reality few of us are fully able to evaluate the relevant technical arguments. Hence we tend to rely on the opinions of those we trust, religious leaders in some cases, experts, scientists and governments in others.

The evidence is that people are more supportive and less concerned with cisgenesis than transgenesis. This perhaps makes sense as many in the sample perceived apples crossed with genes from other apples as more "natural" than apples crossed with something else. If from the outset these had been separately labelled, then it is possible the EU would have been quicker to give the green light to cisgenesis.

On the other hand treating them all as one and the same increases the possibility that the green light will eventually be given to all GM products, cisgenesis and transgenesis alike. It is an example of the dangers of placing disparate technologies in a single basket and saying: take it or leave it.

Explore further

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This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).
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Citation: Why GM food is so hard to sell to a wary public (2015, July 2) retrieved 24 June 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2015-07-gm-food-hard-wary.html
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Jul 02, 2015
A major reason for people not trusting genetically modified food is that they know "government" and "science" always lies. "Science" said there was mass production of banned weapons in Iraq. "Science" said fen-phen was safe, even though it was dangerous. "Science" never proved there really was a measles "outbreak". "Science" claims to depend on proof, then declares God is not present because, "you can't prove a negative". "Science" devotees declared their decisions to be made by proof, then insist fetuses are not human because the law says so. Even the article declares genetically modified food leads to prosperity. No one is prospering today! And a reason no one is prospering is that the "science" of "economics" never warns anyone of financial problems coming up. Everyone knows "science" is arrogant and self serving.

Jul 02, 2015
Why wouldnt people trust Corporations? I just dont get it.

Jul 02, 2015
Karl Popper talks about this effect to an extent.

Evidently people are disturbed when science takes us away from what they see as the laws of nature.

In the pre-history of man and in the early development of culture, people didn't and couldn't really distinguish laws of nature from social tradition because they had no idea what the former was about and had no written history to critically examine the latter.

They couldn't figure out that social rules don't come from the same source as, say, food poisoning. In that sort of highly superstitious culture, social law and tradition was as unbreakable as natural law, and from that comes the religious aversion towards "tampering" with nature: if man can change the natural order of things, which the religion says you can't, then man can change the religion, which religion says you can't, therefore you shouldn't.

In other words, "Man shouldn't play God" is a differently phrased "Don't challenge my authority."

Jul 02, 2015
"Science" claims to depend on proof, then declares God is not present because, "you can't prove a negative".

No, that's actually just logic.

You can't assume God because it makes all your experiments meaningless. God can always throw sand in the gears and mess up your results. By assuming God you simply deny all meaningful knowledge.

Secondly, proving a negative means first assuming the positive and then proving that it isn't so, which in practice means that the non-believer has to invent a God and go looking for it, and after they have sifted through the entire universe not finding one, the believer says "you got the wrong God".

That is because the believer has defined God as unknowable, so he always wins - no proof to the negative can be given - by definition.

Unfortunately, by defining God as unknowable - in other words undefineable - the believer has produced an entity that cannot exist because it's an oxymoron. You don't need to prove that it doesn't exist

Jul 02, 2015
Imagine the sort and number of charlatans we would have if a scientist could say to another, "You didn't get the same results because you're a heathen and God didn't want you to."

Or just imagine faith based engineering.

Jul 02, 2015
After a £3 million study.. Science has proven that GMO is no better than non GMO at..
Pest resistance..
Higher yields..

So why give GMO companies the money to produce seeds that are no better than nature?

Jul 02, 2015
The average person is too stupid to process data and reach a veridical conclusion is why. Eikka, don't throw your pearls before swine. There are pretty much only paid apologists and deluded nut cases posting here anymore. That fucker Penrod is an apologist for the environmental terrorism of the Catholic Church. The only recognition one should give that ilk is dancing on their grave. Well, I do stop and urinate in a Catholic Church every time he posts though. Saint Aloysius sounds like a good one this time.

Jul 02, 2015
GM agriculture is obviously evil, since man has lived on traditional agriculture products like corn, wheat, beans, apples, bananas etc. As we all know none of this plants have changed in millenia. (;>)

Jul 03, 2015
Furthermore to claim that you have a patent for the product that is 100% God's creation when you are changed several genes leads to the borders of madness.


Jul 03, 2015
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Jul 03, 2015
In general people seem to be more hesitant about transgenesis, than cisgenesis

Makes sense to me. Individual genes do not just code for one specific trait. There are a lot of interrelations with other genes.
If a certain gene is present in another apple then chances are fairly high that transposing this into another apple will not have any big, unanticipated (and unwanted) side effects as the gene expression patterns in both apple types are by and large identical.
Though there is still a big question mark on what ELSE that gene does - as the tests are only geared towards its effectiveness in that one area under discussion.

But if your're going for transgenesis you're really just declaring something 'safe' from ignorance. And that approach has never ended well in human history.

Jul 03, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jul 03, 2015
Though citizens do have concerns, the main 5 reasons of GM not getting on in Europe are:

1. the cropyields in EU of traditional and sustainable agriculture are better than US comparable GM crops, farmers simply don't want it.

2. the most common GM foods are not modified to be better food, rather to be insecticide resistant. It doesn't taste better, it is not proven healthier. Why would a farmer reduce his acres to a poison resistant monoculture while it has no significant benefit at all?

3. besides that, the insecticides that the GM crops are resistant to, are mostly neonicotinoids, which are illegal in most European countries anyway.

4. Farmers here are educated.

5. We've seen what happened in US and Canada, how is that supposed to convince the Europeans to switch over to GM foods?

Jul 03, 2015
Corporate Greed

Jul 03, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.

Jul 04, 2015
I don't see how you can vote for a law based on religious opinion in the US...that would make it a law respecting the establishment of religion...illegal

Jul 05, 2015
If this report of the recent study is accurate then it is not of science but instead, anti-science that aims to preserve ignorance and misunderstanding. The listed categories of dissent are quite trivial but the ones left out, substantial. Most GM crops are for the monetary profits of some huge corporations. No end to the evidence they have worked hard and long to usurp wise ecological strategies with short-sighted economic concerns. Appears the data is massaged to preclude quite observable evidence contrary to a desired opinion of both the reporter and the authors of the study. Such propaganda posted here diminishes the integrity of Phys.org .

Jul 06, 2015
I agree with Chipl. That article shows some strange ideas, almost meaning Europeans are nothing but doubtful wildmen.

Jul 06, 2015
Because the sovereign and legislator of the universe gives all free to people for health and joy but such commercial companies often with illegal practices do anything for money and control without caring for the consequences for the health of people

I still don't see why that would mean we can't make alterations.

stealing God's ideas, achievements and patents.

How can you steal from someone who is omnipotent and omniscient?

God doesn't need patents because if he doesn't like what you're doing with "his stuff", he can simply make you dissapear as if you never existed in the first place. Nothing in the world happens without God willing, including all the bad stuff. Otherwise why call him God?

Jul 06, 2015
The decision is more on of caution: Never do something where you do not know 100% of all (side)effects which you cannot undo. That is just sensible practice.
And with GM foods we certainly do not know all the side effects and once they are introduced into the wild they cannot be taken back out.

Currently crops are doing fine in Europe without GM with teh coventional methods of creating new types. So there's no pressing need to have GM (just the risk).

Jul 06, 2015
Never do something where you do not know 100% of all (side)effects which you cannot undo. That is just sensible practice.

You might want to think that maxim over a couple times, just to make sure you've thought about all the side effects you'd have if you actually applied it in practice.

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