“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
Fear of GMOs is increasing
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Fear of biotechnology matters more as we look to the future. Traditional breeding is
If you can find a gene or group of genes that causes
Here’s just one example of the damage that can be caused by