People doubt science: a case-study on GMOs

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Why do people doubt science?

This billion-dollar question was recently tweeted by Robert F Fraley, Monsanto’s vice president and chief technology officer. Accompanying the tweet was a link to the cover story “The war on science” in National Geographic’s March 2015 issue. The article poses that we are living in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge (climate change, evolution, the moon landing, vaccinations and GMOs) is currently facing frantic opposition.

Generally such distrust and skepticism of science is much stronger in the United States than in the European Union, but surveys indicate that 60% of Europeans currently feel uneasy about GMOs while only 20% of Americans view GMOs unfavorably. This lack of public support for GMOs in Europe has resulted in an extremely strict regulatory framework for the import and cultivation of GM crops.

Food production will need to increase

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) conservatively expects the world’s population to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, a 34 percent increase from today. This is compounded with the ongoing transition towards a bio-based economy where fossil resources are replaced by resources based on biomass. The FAO therefore predicts that food production must increase by at least 70%. Since most of the arable land is already in use, 80% of the required production increase must come from improvements in production yield.

One of the technologies to help increase food production is genetic engineering of crops. Despite 30 years of research demonstrating safety and positive benefits of GMOs, Europe remains skeptical and ideological viewpoints are ruling regulatory decisions.

Europeans oppose GMO’s based on fear

In a recent opinion piece, researchers from Ghent University attempted to explain the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition (1). The article is the result of an interesting collaboration between plant biotechnology researchers (2) and philosophers who use cognitive science to explain why opposition to GMO’s has become so widespread.

Blancke et al. propose that our mind has evolved an innate ability to assess risks based on emotions and intuitions (3). Unfortunately that doesn’t mean that this is the best way to make decisions about abstract and complex concepts, such as biotechnology. We cannot naturally generate rational responses to questions such as; ‘what is biotechnology?’, ‘how does it work?’, or, most importantly, ‘is it dangerous?’. In a sense the possibilities of GMOs quite literally boggle the mind.

Thus it becomes apparent that anti-GMO activism does not originate from objective science-based concerns, but is incited by political/marketing campaigns based on fear. Such biases can become deeply engrained in our minds if they are not addressed by education. This often causes persistent resistance to changing our opinions in adulthood.

One of the origins of these biases stems from the point of view that genetic engineering is ‘unnatural’. GMO scientists are accused of ‘playing God’ and conducting acts against nature. Understanding the origins of these biases can to protect us from myths, such as the Frankenstein myth; the conviction that science and technology create monsters. It is easy to draw parallels with the organic food industry that also thrives on the irrational fear that everything artificial must be avoided.
This irrational fear was unfortunately strengthened during the second GMO field test in the spring of 1987. The proverbial seeds of distrust were sown when a group of scientists in yellow biohazard suits sprayed potato plants with handheld dispensers. The attending press eagerly took notes and photographs of this eager scene (4).

Two and a half decades of scientific research later people unfortunately have not come yet to terms with GM Crops. The Belgian branch of the Field Liberation Movement showed that they were willing and proud to resort to eco-terrorism to stop more field tests for blight resistant potatoes in Wetteren, Belgium (5).

US versus Europe

This does not, however, explain the difference between the GMO acceptance in the EU and the USA. The American institute for contemporary German studies investigated these opposing views in an attempt to see how both parties can compromise on GMOs in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations (6). During the 1990s Europe was plagued by food related scandals such as the mad cow disease epidemic, the Dioxin Affair and other food scares. These scandals resulted in an environment of public caution and distrust with regards to GM food, which was used by anti-GMO groups to highlight their concerns that GM food is unnatural and potentially unsafe. The combination of lack of public education on GM foods and lack of public trust resulting from scandals allowed anti-GMO groups to dominate the public discourse on GMOs in the EU. This theory is supported by evidence from focus groups; Europeans at the time had little faith in the EU to effectively regulate biotechnology and new food technologies in general.

Unfortunately reversing the (deeply entrenched) public opinion in the EU is not feasible or likely in the short term. The proper response is not to give in to anti-science campaigns, but to commit to regulations that are transparent and science-based. Risks and benefits should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, similar to the process of regulating pharmaceuticals or novel foods. In addition, emphasis on the benefits would gradually induce sympathy, even though individuals may not experience personal advantages themselves. Hopefully it will then become clear that genetic modification (of crops) is simply a tool and nothing to be fundamentally afraid of.


(1) Why do many reasonable people doubt science?, March 2015

(2) Blancke, Stefaan, Frank Van Breusegem, Geert De Jaeger, Johan Braeckman, and Marc Van Montagu. “Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.” Trends in plant science (2015).

(3)  Most notably is Prof. Dr. Marc Van Montagu who discovered the mechanism for gene transfer between Agrobacterium and plants. This resulted in the development of a method to efficiently create transgenic plants.

(4) The first GMO fieldtests – Brooke Borel –, May 2014

(5) Beklaagden blijven schuldig aan vernielingen, De standaard, December 2014

(6) Who’s afraid of GMOs? Understanding the differences in the regulation of GMOs in the United States and European Union, August 2013

Illustration top by Mark A. Hicks. Courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists –