Foes of Genetically Modified Foods Know Less Than They Think

10 reasons why critics of GMOs are overconfident

Posted Jan 24, 2019

The strongest opponents of a topic often know the least about it.
Source: Pixabay

The strongest opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) seem to think they know more than others about genes and food science while actually knowing less.[1]  A recent study queried 2,000 American and European adults. It measured participants’ beliefs about GM foods, their self–perceived level of expertise, and finally their actual knowledge of basic science and genetics. The results show that the extremity of one's opposition to GM foods is positively related to perceived knowledge about those foods—and negatively related to actual knowledge about questions of basic science. Want to get a sense of your own scientific literacy? Then take the survey’s science literacy quiz.

The origins of ignorance

Extreme beliefs and basic science are usually not the best bedfellows. Science deals in matters that require extensive investigation and fact-checked evidence. Extreme views, on the other hand, tend to arise when complex issues are whittled down to simplified narratives. And overconfidence in one’s mistaken knowledge is associated with less openness to learning new information.

GMOs are a complex topic, and overwhelming evidence concludes that genetically modified foods are safe to consume without ill effects.[2] Humans have been genetically modifying their food for thousands of years, of course, by selective breeding. It’s why you can choose heirloom tomatoes or modern tomatoes-on-the-vine at the grocery store.

But perhaps it is the thought of a lab scientist tinkering with tomato genes that frightens people (yes, tomatoes naturally have genes, as do all living things; this was a frequently failed question on the quiz), or the conspiracy fear that a corporation like Monsanto is somehow trying to control the world through genetically modified crops. Throughout history humans have typically feared change and new technologies. Many anti-GMO sentiments are strikingly similar to science-denial positions in which people refuse to be convinced by evidence.

The irony of fresh information

Ironically, new GM food labels might improve public acceptance. After mandatory labeling was instituted in Vermont in 2014, opposition to GM foods declined 19 percent, and modified products sold just as well as before.[3] Beginning in 2020, federal legislation will require labels that say “bioengineered food” on all foodstuffs with “detectable genetic material that has been modified through lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.”[4]

If the Vermont experience is any indication, greater transparency about GM and bioengineered foods will focus the debate on facts and less on false assumptions and fears. This is the beginning of a much larger debate about genetic manipulation. Recently, a Chinese researcher made headlines by announcing that he had genetically edited twin girls born this month with the aim of making them resistant to HIV. And that opens a much more complicated can of worms.

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