There are some important issues nowadays in which scientists and laymen seem to disagree on. For instance, there’s climate change. While the world’s leading climate scientists agree with 95% confidence (very very very likely) that the world’s climate is changing in an accelerated manner due to greenhouse emissions as a result of human activities, only 50% of Americans agree that global warming is happening and is caused by humans. Then there’s the age old Darwinism vs creationism schism. A major survey found that 31% of the US public believed that humans had existed in their present form since the beginning, with a further 24% stating that humans had evolved under the guiding hand of a supreme being. In contrast, only 2% of AAAS scientists said humans had not evolved in their time on Earth. Of course, then there’s the case of doctors vs so-called anti-vaxxers – people who refuse to vaccinate themselves or their children because they think these cause illness, not ail or prevent it. But maybe one of the most heated debate in which scientists and the public is mostly opposed concerns genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Myths and tricks
Approximately 88% of US scientists agree that GMOs are safe to eat, but this position is only shared by 37% of laymen. In all of these cases I outlined earlier, there seems to be this direct correlation between the degree of expertise and certainty; or inversely proportional to low level expertise. One group stands on facts, while the other on belief. Why would a person who hasn’t even remotely sacrificed the same amount of time, energy and sweat as an expert rebut the former? Better said, why would he be so certain he’s right? In the case of anti-vaxxers, apparently thousands of parents earned a PhD in pharmacology and toxicology over night. These questions aren’t entirely rhetorical, however. Moreover, identifying the prime objections (their true nature) is the first step in developing effective communication campaigns for the lay public; campaigns that are based on facts backed by transparent and easily available peer-reviewed studies. But isn’t that wishful thinking? Reason towering over emotional impulse? A group of biotech researchers and philosophers seem to agree. Writing in a paper published in Trends in Plant Science, the authors note:
“Public opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) remains strong. By contrast, studies demonstrate again and again that GM crops make a valuable contribution to the development of a sustainable type of agriculture. The discrepancy between public opinion and the scientific evidence requires an explanation. We argue that intuitive expectations about the world render the human mind vulnerable to particular misrepresentations of GMOs.
The authors conclude that the main issue at hand is a conflict between reason (an advised opinion based on facts) and intuition.
“The intuitive mind is not well equipped to address intricate questions, such as ‘what is biotechnology?’, ‘how does it work?’, or, most importantly, ‘is it dangerous?’ The ability to understand such issues and, hence, to have a subsequent objective and rational judgment requires an important effort and, even then, the mind is still liable to relapse into biased thinking. Lay people are often unable or are simply not interested in investing large amounts of time and energy to acquire a profound grasp of complex technologies.”
Disgust seems to play a major role, funneling this intuition based belief. There’s something inherently wrong or “unnatural” in eating a vegetable infused with genes from a bacteria or some other species of plant. Some people feel disgusted at this thought. Then, of course, there’s a theological aspect: “we shouldn’t play God.” These sort of concerns have been widely exploited by anti-GMO activists, constructing an emotional response. Have you seen those posters with apples punctured by syringe needles and what not? I know, I know. But, let’s take a brief look at one of the major points raised by anti-GMO activists.
Genetically Modified Organisms are understudied
This is quite reasonable to consider. Anti-GMO activists claim that while there is no proof that genetically modified organisms are bad per se or unsafe, there is this precautionary concern that we might not only see the ill effects until later in the future. But doesn’t that go both ways? Nassim Taleb, arguably the most distinguished scholar on risk management, co-authored a paper on the precautionary principle as it applies to genetically modified organisms and outlined a rigorous mathematical exposition on how we should act on the issue. In the most simple risk management terms, the greater the risk, the less tolerance to risk we should have. For instance, if there’s a 50% chance you’ll double your income at a roulette game if you win, but a 50% chance you’ll lose everything you have, then it’s wiser to forfeit since the damage of becoming homeless and penniless far outweighs the benefit of owning two houses, let’s say. As risk approaches infinity, tolerance tends to zero.
“A way to formalize the ruin problem in terms of the destructive consequences of actions identifies harm as not about the amount of destruction, but rather a measure of the integrated level of destruction over the time it persists. When the impact of harm extends to all future times, i.e. forever, then the harm is infinite. When the harm is infinite, the product of any non-zero probability and the harm is also infinite, and it cannot be balanced against any potential gains, which are necessarily finite. This strategy for evaluation of harm as involving the duration of destruction can be used for localized harms for better assessment in risk management. Our focus here is on the case where destruction is complete for a system or an irreplaceable aspect of a system.”
Mathematically, I don’t think anyone can disagree with Taleb. But in real world terms this conclusion is far too absolute. Again, there is no evidence that GMOs cause harm, to the body at least, so there’s no reliable way of assessing risks and forecasting. The only true risk related to GMOs is pest resistance. Scientists regularly mix genes from some other species in new crops that can be paired with new, powerful herbicides. A prime example are RoundUp Ready crops that use glyphosate. These crops have caused invasive weeds to adapt and develop into new strains called “superweeds”. The authors of the paper in Trends in Plant Science argue, however, that this is due to misuse, rather than inherent GMO fault.
“Herbicide resistance in weeds is the result of bad agricultural practices and natural selection,” says lead author Stefaan Blancke.
“If one grows herbicide-resistant crops year after year then the selection pressure on weeds becomes very strong and so one can expect herbicide resistance to pop up.” In places where the crops have been planted “correctly,” like Canada, Blancke says that there haven’t been problems with resistance.
Concerning Taleb’s assertion, Steve Novella, an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine and well known skeptic, writes:
“I don’t agree with his argument that any permanent harm should also be considered infinite. My question is – does this apply to any harm, no matter how small as long as it’s permanent? Taleb also adds as a criterion that the harms are generalized and not local. So, if the risk spreads to the entire system, we should consider it infinite and his precautionary principle should apply.
Taleb further defines some systems as fragile, meaning they have a non-linear response to harm. For example, if you fell from 1 foot 100 times you would probably be fine, but if you fell once from 100 feet you might be killed. As height from which one falls increases, harm dramatically increases until it is complete (death). However, below a certain threshold there is no harm, and so small falls do not accumulate damage.
The two systems to consider with regard to GMOs are human health and the ecosystem. Taleb argues that both of these systems are fragile, that the risk of harm from GMOs is global and not local, and that such harm has the potential to be permanent, therefore we should apply his precautionary principle of zero risk.
However, Taleb also argues that the risk to the environment increases as more GMO are introduced. He is assuming cumulative risk, however, and this is where I think his argument is biologically naive. Nature is a robust system with many homeostatic mechanisms. Potential harm from unintended consequences are likely to be local and finite, not global and permanent.”
Now, for this argument to be complete, we need to remember why scientists are working so hard on GMOs in the first place – yields. For thousands of years, human beings have modified nature’s organisms for usage in agriculture. New technology has furthered this trend: recombinant DNA technology allows biotechnology firms to insert DNAs into plant genomes, thereby creating plants that express the desired traits. On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%.
By 2050, the global population is expected to rise above 9 billion, and the existing amount of arable land is expected to decrease significantly due to anthropogenic climate change and urbanization. The projected population expansion and rise of food consumption per person in China and India makes efficient land use essential to food security in the next 100 years (Cribb). Consequently, conserving land to produce more food is a necessity for any long term plan. The rich won’t have much to worry, as always, but the poor in China and India won’t have any other alternative than using GM crops. In the same article, Novella wrote:
“Another factor I felt was missing from Taleb’s calculations is considering the risks of alternatives. Growing enough food for 7 billion people has consequences, in terms of land use, fertilizer, pesticides, and displacing natural ecosystems. GMO as a technology can potentially add to our efficiency. Banning GMO means relying more heavily on other technologies that may have even more risks.
In the end I found Taleb’s arguments to still come down to hyping the risk of unforeseen consequences due to the inherent limits of scientific knowledge. I don’t agree, however, that GMOs have the potential for global ruin. This is still largely based on a naive belief that transgenes are inherently risky, when there is no scientific reason to believe that they are.”
Again, humans have been modifying organisms through selection since the advent of agriculture. Virtually all the vegetables and fruit you eat are unrecognizable from their wild variety from which they initially split. Are there some real potential threats that GMOs pose? Of course, but fear mongering is never a solution. If we’re to work together towards a sustainable global goal, maybe it’s best to leave our prejudice at home. Maybe read a book or two, too.
“There is nothing specific about the technology of genetic modification that would make it more risky,” Blancke says. “On the contrary, in comparison with these other breeding techniques, scientists have a much better idea of what is happening at the genetic level.”
“The fastest route to acceptance is that consumers recognize that the technology yields direct personal benefits and are thereby motivated to overcome their intuitive resistance,” says Blancke. “The slowest, but perhaps most durable route, is via education. If people learn about GMOs, genetics, agriculture and so on they might become immune to negative and wrong representations of the technology.”
Later edit (08/06/2015): A lot of you weren’t satisfied with this reporting. I agree I may have been ambiguous in some instances, so I’ll try to set some things straight.
1. To reiterate, this article is about the divide between what’s an established consensus (most scientists believe GMOs are safe) and an oddly equal opposition from laymen and a minority of scientists. Now, I’m not saying you should flock to the other side and ride the major consensus bandwagon. I’m thankful that some of you haven’t, but I suspect that not out of the best reasons (a balanced examination). It’s just that given the current situation (54 percent of people in the US know little or nothing about genetically modified foods), you might want to consider some points: am I biased? Is my response driven by some of the psychological impulses listed above? Have I weighed the pros and cons? Judging by the kind of most of the responses gathered thus far (furious, injurious, ad hominem attacks, etc.), it’s quite remarkable how polarizing this subject can be. After all, it’s about the food me, you and our children eat. But the whole purpose of this article was to report this apparent divide, echoed elsewhere on subjects like climate change and creationism, hopefully start a thoughtful discussion and maybe elicit the reader to dig a bit further. By all means, come to your own opinion, but do please try to keep it at a reasonable level. If you’ve done your homework already (whatever conclusion you may have arrived to), good for you. This article is written for the majority of people, illiterate with regard to GMOs. I apologize if my tone seems condescending, but read the article again and you might understand why (hint: this article is directed to the vast majority of anti-GMO activists).
2. Most scientists claim GMOs are safe (how many times did I say this?) to eat. Please consider the distinction. There are, however, environmental problems associated with weed-resistant GMO crops (the superweeds listed earlier). That’s a separate issue, and indeed very complicated (Vox has a nice report). But most people object to GM food because they think it’s poisoneous, so all for the wrong reasons. Considering pesticides, herbicides and the likes, while some GMO crops are bred to work in tandem with some of these chemicals, it’s the chemicals themselves that might cause health problems, not the GMO stock. Herbicides and pesticides might kill bees and cause health problems in humans, but these are sprayed on “conventional” and GM crops alike. There’s no modern crop that doesn’t use them. Moreover, GMO crops reduce the amount of such chemicals used. Concerning glyphosate, opinions seem to be mixed (source 1, 2 and 3).
3. No, I’m not paid by Monsanto or any other bio-tech corporation. In fact, I don’t hold Monsanto in good regard. Why would you assume that? Is what I’ve outlined so unreasonable? I’ll credit it to cognitive dissonance.
4. So, don’t hate GMOs. Disagree with it, sure. But don’t object to it out of emotional reasons solely.
Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!