Although genetically engineered foods made their first appearance on grocery store shelves back in 1994, they still remain a topic of contention in today’s society. While some believe GE foods are the key to feeding Earth’s growing population, others see them as a threat to human and environmental health. These attitudes are shaped by a myriad of different stakeholders.
The consensus of a National Academy of Sciences committee, as noted in their recent report on GE crops, is that no GE food created to date poses a threat to environmental or human health.
“I was on a committee that looked at all the literature on this topic, and there’s no credible study that shows any effect on human health,” Richard Amasino, a UW-Madison biochemistry professor and co-author the NAS report, confirmed.
He further explained that there is no evidence showing that GE crops damage the environment more than conventional crops.
Despite such findings, a widespread mistrust of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, permeates public opinion. Given that most people don’t have the time or interest to do thorough research on the topic, their attitudes are heavily influenced by media coverage. Media outlets are incentivized to capture the attention of an audience and tend to focus on alarming incidents in which GMOs produce unfavorable results.
Technical details of research are often left out of popular press in favor of exaggerated results, and inflammatory language is used to spark an emotional response from the audience. In doing so, media outlets have a lot of control over how the public perceives scientific findings. This leads to a polarization between sides instead of an analysis of the complexities of the issue.
In their 2004 study, science communicators Claire McInerney, Nora Bird and Mary Nucci delve into how media coverage of GMOs spiked after one such incident.
In 1999, the international science journal Nature published a piece on the harmful effects of GE corn pollen on Monarch butterflies. Suddenly, the media was abuzz with controversy. News stories portrayed GE corn as a strange and hazardous technology, and the Monarch became a symbol of the anti-GMO movement. Media coverage neglected to report that the Nature article was based on a study in its preliminary stages, and there were significant limitations to its conclusions.
The Monarch case also gave environmental organizations an opportunity to declare their side in the GMO debate.
Greenpeace is a particularly effective influencer of public opinion, with its famous reputation for saving whales and halting nuclear tests. Greenpeace’s statement on GE foods reads, “GMOs should not be released into the environment since there is not adequate scientific understanding of their impact on the environment or human health.”
Greenpeace’s motivation for promoting a platform inconsistent with the scientific consensus is known only to them, but Amasino explained a spectrum of possible motivations. On one hand, they could truly believe GE foods are harmful. Contrarily, they could be using the campaign as a fundraising opportunity. Regardless, people that subscribe to Greenpeace’s broader mission of environmental stewardship are likely to align themselves with their anti-GMO sentiment as well.
Factors beyond outright campaigns against GMOs influence public opinion, too. The way in which GE products were introduced to consumers, for example, is a major source of public opposition, as Claire Marris reports in her 2007 study.
Marris reported that people perceived the introduction of GE foods into the market as sneaky, and would have liked the scientific and regulatory institutions involved to be more transparent during the process. Feelings of frustration are amplified when these institutions state GMOs don’t carry a risk. People are aware that every technology has inherent risk, so the claim that GE foods are 100% safe deepens feelings of mistrust.
Suspicion towards GMOs also arises from the labeling debate. A majority of consumers wish producers were required to label GE food, while the main opponents to labeling are agricultural biotechnology corporations. People feel as though they have a right to know what they are consuming, and a lack of access to such information is a source of resentment towards the GMO industry.
To meet the demand for labeling, the Non-GMO Project created a verification seal for foods not produced via genetic engineering. Now, the Non-GMO seal is common in grocery stores and often seen on products also marketed as “natural” or “healthy.” This leads people to believe that non-GE foods are healthier than their GE counterparts. Although there is no scientific evidence showing non-GE foods are more nutritious than GE foods, this marketing technique is effective in swaying public opinion.
The GMO controversy shows no signs of fizzling anytime soon. According to a Pew Research Center report conducted in 2016, 71 percent of Americans know little or nothing at all about GE foods. As information on GMOs is disseminated and public discourse evolves, public opinion will undoubtedly change.