Who's Afraid of GMOs?

Why genetically modified corn scares you more than an exploding airbag

Posted Nov 02, 2016

Since 2014, 11 people have been killed and hundreds injured by exploding automobile airbags manufactured by Takata, a Japanese company. According to a New York Times article, the company knew about the problem since 2004 but managed to elude regulators by exploiting weak reporting rules. Some car companies may also have known about the issue for many years before it came to light and U.S. federal regulators may have been slow to fully investigate the problem.

Despite this disaster and apparent cover-up which led to millions of car recalls, everyone seems clear that while Takata may have made dangerous airbags, airbags themselves are an important advance in automobile safety. We are all able to separate the company that performed badly from the product itself.

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Compare this with the situation involving the Monsanto corporation (recently merged with the Bayer corporation) and the genetically modified seeds it sells. Labeled a “biotech bully” by an organization called the Organic Consumers Association, Monsanto has been vilified for its business practices and charged with manipulating research in order to obscure the dangers of genetically modified foods, known as GMOs. Unlike the situation with Takata and airbags, Monsanto and GMOs have become almost synonymous in the public’s mind. Monsanto, the third most hated company in America, is seen by many as evil, and therefore its product, genetically engineered seeds, are similarly deemed evil and dangerous.

The striking fact is that most scientists insist that GMOs are perfectly safe for human consumption and necessary to fight the global scourges of starvation and malnutrition-related diseases. Scientists remind us that we have been eating genetically modified food for millennia. Through cross-breeding, farmers have produced wheat, seedless grapes, and a host of other commonly consumed products by swapping genes between strains of plants.

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

If scientists believe that GMOs are safe and necessary, just like airbags, then why have we developed such a strong narrative around the evil corporation Monsanto feeding us dangerous chemicals and at the same time completely ignored actual misconduct by a corporation that put people at serious risk of injury and death? Why have we persisted in a fear of GMOs but remained unafraid of airbags, even after faulty manufacturing of the latter has actually harmed people? There are probably many reasons, but we would like to focus on one psychological aspect that we discuss in our book Denying To the Grave: the fear of complexity.

Although scientists are pleased about the precision with which genetic modification is accomplished, the process is complicated and difficult to explain. Indeed, studies show that while most people do not understand what GMOs actually are, they favor legislation mandating labelling of GMOs in purchased food.

The very notion of inserting a gene into an organism sounds like science fiction, even though it is now a routine laboratory procedure. Genes are sometimes inserted by linking them to non-pathogenic viruses that can insert themselves into a host genome, called “viral vectors,” and this idea of infection with viruses, although again routine and harmless, sounds complicated and scary. We understandably fear things that we don’t understand and that seem unnatural. We understand the idea that planting a seed in the ground leads to a plant that can be eaten, and we are squeamish about the idea of manufacturing those seeds in a laboratory.

By contrast, the nature and function of airbags seem straightforward to all of us.  A big balloon inflates at the point of impact and prevents driver and passengers from being propelled into the windshield.  The fact that one company tragically manufactured dangerous airbags that malfunction on impact and spew fragments into the air does not detract from our basic understanding of the product itself and its merit. We are 100% confident that properly made airbags are beneficial and safe.

It is difficult to argue with the call for “transparency” by those advocating for GMO food labeling; transparency is a value we all believe in. It would be wrong, however, to ignore the psychological effects of GMO labeling. We put special labels on foods in order to warn people about potential danger. Doesn’t GMO food labeling convey the idea that they are risky and to be avoided? Wouldn’t any responsible parent think twice about feeding a child any food with a warning label on it?

We believe, then, that the controversy over whether foods should be labeled when they contain GMOs is a distraction from the important issue of conveying the scientific consensus about them. Until we appreciate the psychological factors that make us ignore the science behind GMOs we should not be making influential decisions about how to regulate and label them. If we aren’t careful, the workings of our psychologies might deprive the world of desperately needed technologies that could feed millions.