Are You Scared of GMO Foods?

Credit: Tim Robberts Getty Images

If so, new research says, learning the science behind them could change your mind.

Scientists can do some amazing things with genes, from saving papayas from extinction, to making apples last longer before turning brown, to creating variants of crops that reduce pesticide use. Some of these things may sound too good to be true and I understand if you’re skeptical. How does this work? Is it safe? How do we know it’s safe? What are the side effects? If you’re asking these questions, you’re like many Americans who question the idea of genetically modified organisms.

Genetic modification has come a long way since ancient farmers first tinkered with the genes of the teosinte plant to develop the corn we have today. Yes, you read that correctly: genetic modification has been around since many centuries before we even knew genes existed. Although there are many techniques, they all achieve the same purpose. A genetically modified (GM) organism is an organism that has had its genetic code—elements of its DNA—changed or modified in some way so that it displays a desirable characteristic.

When you think of genetic modification, it may conjure images of laboratories where scientists are injecting plants and animals with various random chemicals. But while genes can be modified by using chemical and biological agents, both in nature and in the lab, modern genetic modification procedures are hardly random. The most advanced methods, such as CRISPR, are extremely precise and based on decades of research.

Still, that might sound scary: scientists are messing with the nature of an organism. After all, our genes are what make us us, right? Can we be sure of the effects when we mix genes from two different species? (We can.) If you eat something with modified genes does it have an effect on our own genes? (It doesn’t.)

These types of concerns are natural, but understanding the facts behind GMOs (genetically modified organisms) requires a certain level of science knowledge that, unfortunately, many Americans lack. In fact, recent studies place America at around the middle of the pack when it comes to an understanding of science—just 24th out of 71 countries. And this lack of knowledge is likely to influence the decisions people make about what to eat.

In fact, knowledge is the best predictor of one’s attitudes about GM foods. Some research has even shown that those who think they know the most about GM foods actually know less and have the most negative beliefs. This means that people who dislike GM foods do so because they don’t know what GM foods are and how they are created.

It’s not really their fault, as the underlying science involves complex questions. How do we know what a certain set of genes does? How would we even go about changing those genes? What are the safeguards and testing procedures involved?

In a recent study, my colleagues and I found that we can change people’s attitudes about GM foods by teaching them the basic science behind it. But we took a different approach than you might expect. First, we avoided any claims that GM foods were safe or unsafe, good or bad. Instead, we focused simply on providing the basic scientific information about them in an accessible way, and gave people the opportunity to reflect on their beliefs and questions. We asked them to come to their own decisions about the issue and, at the end of the study, people were more positive toward GM foods overall.

(An important caveat is that skepticism about GM foods may be unique in its link to a lack of knowledge about the science. As far as we know, the same can’t be said about climate change, or evolution, or vaccine skepticism—those topics can depend more on one’s political and religious beliefs, and explaining the science behind them often doesn’t work.)

Genetic modification is being applied to many types of organisms—mostly crop plants. The goal in developing these crops is often to change some characteristic so that they’re easier to grow, hardier, or able to thrive in places where they normally wouldn’t. For example, some GM crops require less pesticide than unmodified corps, or are more resistant to diseases. Some GMOs, such as “golden rice,” modify plants so that they have greater nutritional value.

Imagine the benefits for countries around the world. With growing populations, we will need more food. With a changing climate, we will need to make sure that food can still grow. Yet many Americans—about 63 percent according to a Pew Research Center poll—are willing to toss the potential benefits simply because they don’t know the science behind it.

So, where do we go from here? Perhaps this should raise the awareness among scientists to communicate the science behind GMOs—instead of trying to convince people that GMOs are not bad for them, teach them about the basic science. Science is amazing, awe-inspiring, challenging and exciting. We scientists need to focus more on teaching people what we know.

More importantly, though, scientific advancements are necessary for our survival. Advances such as creating better crops, developing new vaccines, understanding why our climate is changing and coming up with ways to combat it rely on cutting-edge science. By simply giving people more information in an accessible way, we are giving them the tools to make better decisions—the decisions that will ultimately decide our future.

By Jonathon McPhetres
Photo Credit: Tim Robberts Getty Images