Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Supporters Attempt to Answer What’s in the Heads, or Hearts, of Opponents

For years, supporters and opponents of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) have debated questions ranging from the safety of engineered crops, to their effects on animals, plants, and the broader environment.

But in attributing the stance of GMO opponents to “intuitive reasoning” Stefaan Blancke, Ph.D., and colleagues showed how much supporters have shifted the debate beyond science, toward the thinking of opponents. They cite GMO acceptance by science groups and scientists—88% of whom said genetically modified foods are safe in a January survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Pew Research Center.

The survey—which showed only 37% of the general public agreeing—came 16 months after a study in Critical Reviews in Biotechnology led by Alessandro Nicolia, Ph.D., of the University of Perugia examined 1,783 studies published from 2002-12: “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of [genetically-engineered] crops.

“However, the debate is still intense,” Dr. Nicolia and colleagues understated.

Opponents insist GMO science remains unsettled, citing a statement signed by 300 scientists, physicians and scholars, and published January 24 in Environmental Sciences Europe. Critics also take issue with the apparent consensus of the studies, saying most were conducted or funded by GMO producers—and with U.S. regulators, which they consider too industry-friendly. In March, the EPA approved six genetically-modified varieties of potatoes by J. R. Simplot and two types of genetically-modified “Arctic” apples from Okanagan Specialty Fruits.

Intuitions and Emotions

Dr. Blancke—a philosophy postdoc at Ghent University when the paper was written—and colleagues sought to explain the GMO divide in an opinion paper published in Trends in Plant Science. The team defined “intuitive reasoning” to include “folk biology, teleological and intentional intuitions and disgust.” All four, they said, produce intuitive expectations about the world that “render the human mind vulnerable to particular misrepresentations of GMOs.”

“Negative representations of GMOs—for instance, like claims that GMOs cause diseases and contaminate the environment—tap into our feelings of disgust and this sticks to the mind,” Dr. Blancke said in a statement. “These emotions are very difficult to counter, in particular because the science of GMOs is complex to communicate.”

Understanding GMO opposition, Dr. Blancke and colleagues add, is a first step toward reversing it. Dr. Blancke, a philosophy professor, and co-author Geert De Jaeger, Ph.D., a plant biotechnologist at Ghent University, lecture for GMO use publicly and promote science-education programs they assert can help balance anti-GMO efforts.

They’re not alone in probing the minds of GMO foes. On NPR’s “Culture & Cosmos” blog, Tania Lombrozo, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, attributed to GMO critics “essentialism,” a belief in an underlying essence for every species, and “naturalism,” a preference for products untouched by human intervention.

Agreeing with Dr. Lombrozo, Mark Lynas, a onetime GMO foe-turned-supporter, author, and researcher at the Cornell Alliance for Science, told GEN: “The fundamentalism of this whole anti-GMO movement does come down to this whole objection to moving genes between species, and the essential idea that we’re somehow intruding on nature in a way which we shouldn’t, which really does come down to a misconception of the entire basis of biology, which we should have known about since Darwin and Mendel.”

Jeremy Gruber, J.D., president and executive director of the Council for Responsible Genetics, told GEN Dr. Blancke and others are essentially marginalizing GMO foes.

“The effect of this study is to really capture the sentiment of many pro-GMO advocates think, and that is, those that have concerns over GMOs must be wrong, so let’s find ways that we can rationalize why they are so foolish,” Gruber told GEN. “I don’t think proponents of GMOs do themselves any service when they ignore the very real concerns of the public, when they call them anti-science, or some derogatory term.”

Counters Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, and senior fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy at UC Davis: “I wouldn’t necessarily call it anti-science.

“When you’re acting on impulse and emotion, it’s just another way to view the world. Plenty of our decisions are based not on science facts,” Entine told GEN. “But (anti-GMO critics) can’t claim that they’re basing it on science. They’re basing it on other things. They’re basing it on religious beliefs. They’re basing it on ideology.”

Not so, said Gruber, who said the GMO divide reflects a lack of dialogue by supporters: “The language that they use, and the types of articles they write to de-legitimize those with very real concerns, I think, and the pomposity of the types of articles they write, and the way they speak, really plays a big oversized role in why there’s such a divide.”

Food Fight

Dr. Blancke’s paper was one of two recent developments illustrating how factors outside of traditional science are reshaping the GMO debate. On April 27, Chipotle Mexican Grill said it would stop using genetically-modified ingredients in the food served at its U.S. restaurants. Chipotle founder and co-chief executive Steve Ells planted seeds of GMO doubt by saying the company’s decision reflected its desire for “the very best ingredients,” adding in a statement: “It’s clear that a lot of research is still needed before we can truly understand all of the implications of widespread GMO cultivation and consumption.”

Chipotle’s website questions whether GMO ingredients are “raised with care for animals, farmers, and the environment (concluding, “We’re doubtful that the GMO ingredients that used to be in our food meet these criteria”); calls for more independent studies; says GMO-averse customers should be able to eat at its restaurants; and mentions a 2012 study often cited by opponents.

That study, published in Environmental Sciences Europe by GMO critic Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., of Washington State University, linked genetically modified crops to glyphosate-resistant “superweeds,” citing U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Steve Savage, Ph.D., an agricultural scientist and pro-GMO consultant, wrote in Science 2.0 that the 404 million pounds of pesticides cited by Dr. Benbrook came to just 4 oz. per crop acre per year—while greater herbicide use reduced harmful environmental effects of plowing, such as soil erosion.

Chipotle acknowledges it won’t be entirely GMO-free: Genetically-modified grains will feed some of the animals from which meat and dairy products will come, while the chain will continue selling many sodas that contain sweeteners using genetically-modified corn.

Chipotle’s ban comes two years after the chain promised to disclose GMOs in its food, and move away from their use.

“GMOs have an image problem,” Gruber correctly notes. “Rather than rehabilitate that image problem legitimately, the producers of these products simply want to deny consumers the ability to know whether there are GMOs in their products, and to decide whether or not to purchase them. The industry’s argument is, if people know that something has GMO ingredients, they won’t buy it. Well, tough.”

On her blog Food Politics, Marion Nestle, Ph.D, a public health nutritionist, author, and Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, said of Chipotle’s announcement: “No, this is not a safety issue. GMO corn ingredients were not making Chipotle customers sick. Yes, this is a matter of trust.  Chipotle customers are offended that GMO foods are not labeled and that they have no choice about whether to eat them.”

The debate is as much safety-vs.-safety as safety-vs.-trust: Supporters emphasize non-toxicity to humans; opponents, the effects of their use on the environment.

“From the standpoint of scientists, if a GMO is safe, it’s acceptable.  From the point of view of values, even if a GMO is safe, it is not necessarily acceptable,” Nestle told GEN. “I can think of lots of reasons to be concerned about GMOs that have nothing to do with safety.

In addition to weed resistance, those reasons include concerns over corporate food-supply control, loss of biodiversity to single-crop growth or “monoculture,” and harm to monarch butterflies laying eggs on milkweed killed by glyphosate. Supporters counter milkweed has long disrupted farming, glyphosate is less harmful than other herbicides, the monarch butterfly population began shrinking before GMOs, monoculture can improve farming, and corporations can help as well as harm.

These and other GMO issues are as settled, supporters contend, as the science of climate change. But as that debate shows, winning the science isn’t the same as winning the argument. That will require education and persuasion based on information that addresses facts and fears, and avoids invective—efforts unlikely to take root for years, if at all.


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