After three decades, why do the public still see GMOs as controversial?


Elissar Gerges
Elissar Gerges has more than 10 years of experience as an Advanced Placement Program and International Baccalaureate Diploma Program biology teacher and biology head of department. She holds a Master of Science in Education, a Master of Education in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development, and a Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership, K–12. Her research focus is on integrating citizenship in science education. She is a strong advocate for science media literacy to enable all students, as active citizens, to critically evaluate science in the media to make informed decisions.

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The safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is supported by international and governmental organisations such as the World Health Organization, European Commission, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Health Canada. Research studies on GMOs have not found compelling evidence to demonstrate that genetically modified food is less safe than traditional food or that it poses risks to our health or the environment. Yet, for large sections of the public, GMO foods remain steeped in unwarranted controversy.

Since their commercial introduction in the 1990s, GMOs have been one of the most debated issues in public discussions on food safety, production, and the environment. Those debates have often been initiated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other third-party special interest groups who have actively created campaigns and media propaganda aimed at associating GMOs with multiple hazards.

These campaigns essentially make three main arguments against GMOs:

  1. GMOs are not safe for human consumption and are harmful to the environment.
  2. GMOs serve the economic interests of large corporations at the expense of consumer wellbeing.
  3. GMO research is inconclusive with regards to the long-term effects of GMOs on human health and the environment.

Contrary to those arguments, an overwhelming body of high-quality research shows that GMOs do not pose an additional risk to health or the environment when compared with traditional food technologies. In 2010, the European Union’s Research and Innovation Directorate released a lengthy report finding that the conclusion of “the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies” (p. 16).

Another report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2016), states that “no differences have been found that implicate a higher risk to human health safety from these GE foods than from their non-GE counterparts” (p. 10) after a detailed examination of comparisons between genetically engineered (GE) and non-genetically engineered (non-GE) foods. The report also highlights that the public lacks access to health and safety data, which generates distrust in science.

Misinformation, fear of the unknown, lack of access to credible information, confirmation bias when weighing evidence, and lack of perceived benefits are all factors that trigger people’s resistance to change. Concerns mostly arise from a lack of knowledge in the fields of genetics, biotechnology, and genetic modification. This lack of scientific knowledge creates fear, and makes people more vulnerable to believing in misconceptions about GMOs and other food production techniques, which breeds distrust in scientists and the motives of government bodies. Additionally, the agri-business companies that have supported GMOs have created suspicion of the commercial motives and the market power of the leaders of such companies.

Governments of different countries have responded to the controversy and the uncertainty around GMOs by introducing regulations regarding food labeling, in an attempt to preserve the consumer’s “right to know”. Many countries have enforced mandatory GMO labeling and voluntary non-GMO labeling standards. The NON-GMO Project monarch butterfly logo, prominently placed at the front of thousands of products, has created a fast-growing market. As a result, many consumers are more likely to choose a product that is labeled as non-GMO, even on foods where a genetically modified alternative does not even exist – such as salt, lettuce, or oranges. The non-GMO movement depends on fear-based activism and preys on people’s need to feel safe and in control of their choices, including food choices. Selling fear is a highly profitable marketing strategy.

A large red tomato

NGOs, using different media outlets, have emphasized dubious claims about the risks of GMOs without providing credible evidence to support their statements. The non-GMO campaigns have focused on the ‘natural’ and ‘moral’ aspects, diverting the discussion away from presenting a balanced account of the benefits and risks of biotechnology. Opponents argue that GMOs should be banned no matter their value or risk. For them, biotechnology seems to violate some basic moral principles; thus, it is rejected and deemed unacceptable, unnatural, and commonly labeled as “Frankenfoods”. The naturalistic logical fallacy takes over, as consumers believe that if something is ‘natural’, it must be good. Whether a substance is natural, modified, or synthetic has no bearing on its safety or ability to cause harm.

The public debate regarding the risks of GMOs has also been partially affected by how the media frames the issue thus influencing the public’s perceptions about the subject matter. While public debate on scientific issues can help people make more informed choices, the problem with the GMO debate is that it contradicts what appears to be a consensus in science regarding the safety of GM crops. Organisations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the NON-GMO Project have fueled public mistrust of the risks of GM food by presenting GMOs as a controversial issue when, in fact, there is no legitimate scientific controversy. In an attempt to present a balanced, unbiased approach to news around GMOs, media outlets create a false dichotomy around GMOs. By adhering to the journalistic norm of balanced reporting, the media has supported the Nirvana fallacy that anti-GMO activists often employ. These factors have created a breeding ground for GMO skepticism, with a tendency to oppose GMOs until ‘the debate’ is resolved.

Although several publications have been retracted, the discourse mainly focuses on the argument that the health hazards of GMOs are not yet known. Anti-GMO groups demand long-term studies. But how long is long enough? While the vast number of research articles give reassurances as to the safety of GMOs, a small number of studies claim to show undesired differences between conventional crops and genetically modified crops. However, what matters is considering the whole body of evidence when drawing conclusions on GMO safety.

The non-GMO movement creates the impression that it represents reliable knowledge, while it denies evidence of a vast volume of research studies that have demonstrated the safety of GMOs. One common strategy is cherry-picking. Instead of evaluating the whole body of evidence before making a scientific judgment, data is cherry-picked and presented out of context to support an already determined conclusion. The movement ignores the broad body of research and draws on isolated and even methodologically flawed papers to refute consensus on the safety of GMOs.

Many research studies have provided empirical evidence that GMOs do not pose a health risk. The burden of proof now falls on the proponents of non-GMO products and opponents of GMO technology to provide evidence that these products pose a threat to our health and environment. Science does not prove that GMOs are safe for consumption. Science provides evidence that there is no significant risk.

For consumers to adopt GMOs and embrace the innovative nature of biotechnology, trust and confidence in the advances and applications of science must be established, because consumers’ fears determine their choices. Experiencing an accelerating scientific change in various areas of life might be challenging for an average consumer to accept, making it easier to succumb to heuristics or emotions to avoid the need to understand complex scientific messages. An improvement in science communication could also have a significant impact on the future of genetically modified crops and on creating an informed public perception. Skepticism in science (and GMOs) is encouraged when warranted, because science develops by being challenged, peer-reviewed, and debated.

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