Psychology of the appeal of being anti-GMO

Credit: Blancke et al./Trends in Plant Science 2015

By Science Daily

A team of Belgian philosophers and plant biotechnologists have turned to cognitive science to explain why opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has become so widespread, despite positive contributions GM crops have made to sustainable agriculture. In a paper published April 10 in Trends in Plant Science, they argue that the human mind is highly susceptible to the negative and often emotional representations put out by certain environmental groups and other opponents of GMOs. The researchers urge the general public to form opinions on GMOs on a case-by-case basis, thereby not focusing on the technology but on the resulting product.

“The popularity and typical features of the opposition to GMOs can be explained in terms of underlying cognitive processes. Anti-GMO messages strongly appeal to particular intuitions and emotions,” says lead author Stefaan Blancke, a philosopher with the Ghent University Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences. “Negative representations of GMOs–for instance, like claims that GMOs cause diseases and contaminate the environment–tap into our feelings of disgust and this sticks to the mind. These emotions are very difficult to counter, in particular because the science of GMOs is complex to communicate.”

Examples of anti-GMO sentiment are present around the world–from the suspension of an approved genetically modified eggplant in India to the strict regulations on GM crops in Europe. Contributing to this public opposition, the researchers suspect, is a lack of scientific understanding of genetics (not even half of the respondents in a US survey rejected the claim that a fish gene introduced into a tomato would give it a fishy taste) as well as moral objections to scientists “playing God.”

“Anti-GMO arguments tap into our intuitions that all organisms have an unobservable immutable core, an essence, and that things in the natural world exist or happen for a purpose,” Blancke explains “This reasoning of course conflicts with evolutionary theory–the idea that in evolution one species can change into another. It also makes us very susceptible to the idea that nature is a force that has a purpose or even intentions that we shouldn’t’ meddle with.”


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26 COMMENTS

  1. The researchers urge the general public to form opinions on GMOs on a case-by-case basis, thereby not focusing on the technology but on the resulting product.

    I think many people are naturally suspicious of an ends-justifies-the-means approach like this. My instinctive reaction to the suggestion that the general public shouldn’t focus on the technology is to wonder what the technologists are trying to hide.

    People’s concerns about GMOs may be baseless, but they need to be addressed, not dismissed.

  2. Fear of things such as GMO’s are a reminder how easy it is to run a scare campaign. With such phrases as frankenfoods, claims of mutant and indestructible weeds and talk of giant agribusiness’ having control over what people eat it is no wonder that people quickly hide behind the fear of the unknown .

  3. Fear of things such as GMO’s…

    Insert the word GOD instead of GMO’s and all the reasons you cite run parallel with religion. Such a defective species.

  4. I agree, I have concerns about certain aspects of this namely the patenting of Genes for example, this isn’t directly related to GMO but a breast cancer gene was allowed to be patented. These issues around someone owning a discovery is one of the many thorny issues here. However we have now been eating GMO’s for a very long time so far without much in the way of strong evidence of any detrimental effects (none that I have found – but I’m open to it). I have a real problem with Monsato’s suing of farmers who ended up with round-up ready plants growing on their farms they say from contamination of their crops – if true then this is a shocking use of legal muscle to commercialise a technology that could potentially benefit millions and has certainly fuelled the fires of mistrust, a spectacular own goal. But Geneticists would point to a plethora of studies showing that they have, are we the public reading them I wonder? Or has Monsanto sufficiently poisoned the well to generate mistrust?

    However we probably still need to be cautious. What surprises me about this whole deal is the level of fear associated with the GMO debate as compared to artificial selection. One method some of the researches are using is identifying genes they want doing experiments in plants finding a useful mutation testing it with Genetic modification then sampling the crops to find the modification in occurring (naturally) and then selectively breeding from that plant. Now I can’t really see the difference other than the inconvenience of having to find the genes you already know you want. We may be right to be concerned about GMO but if we are why are we not also concerned about genetic modification via artificial selection? That gets exactly zero airtime.

  5. @OP – The researchers urge the general public to form opinions on GMOs on a case-by-case basis, thereby not focusing on the technology but on the resulting product.

    That is indeed good advice, but the full coverage of the big picture needs to available to the public before they can make informed decisions.
    The deceptions of the big-agribusiness and media stooges, have a record going back decades.
    (They are still feeding 80% of anti-biotic production to well animals to boost production, despite decadess of medical warnings of the consequent generation of drug resistant strains of some very nasty pathogens).

    Contributing to this public opposition, the researchers suspect, is a lack of scientific understanding of genetics.

    Contributing to the bias in this article I suspect there is a (deliberate?) lack of understanding of ecology, and the escalating existing problems caused by the introduction of alien species into new environments, with the attendant risks of creating very damaging, and very expensive invasive species problems.

    “Anti-GMO arguments tap into our intuitions that all organisms have an unobservable immutable core, an essence, and that things in the natural world exist or happen for a purpose,” Blancke explains “This reasoning of course conflicts with evolutionary theory–the idea that in evolution one species can change into another. It also makes us very susceptible to the idea that nature is a force that has a purpose or even intentions that we shouldn’t’ meddle with.”

    These are of course only the pseudo-science arguments from creationist scientific illiterate GMO opponents! They can be dismissed before we even start to consider evidence based rational scientific arguments.

    “For a very long time people have only been hearing one side,” Blancke says.

    Nope! All too often we have been hearing TWO WRONG SIDES, with an absence of clear explanations real benefits and real dangers, being presented to the public.

    This article does nothing to improve that situation.

  6. A team of Belgian philosophers and plant biotechnologists have turned to cognitive science to explain why opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has become so widespread,

    Biotechnologists are marketing their products, but what do philopsphers have to do with ecological, biological and psychological issues?

    despite positive contributions GM crops have made to sustainable agriculture.

    GM crops and big agri-business may increase crop yields, but “sustainable agriculture”, – They have to be joking!!!

  7. Not all opposition to GMOs is based on unreasonable fear. I have no problem with GMOs in general, but am repulsed by the business practices of giant agribusiness and concerned about the overuse of glyphosate and the subsequent possibility of contaminated produce. Just because some people harbor unreasonable and melodramatic fears doesn’t mean we should give GMOs an automatic pass, just like the existence of rabid anti-vaxxers shouldn’t keep us from continuing to look for real side effects of vaccines.

  8. I may have to modify my stance on GMO’s a little.

    I hear the GMO cotton that was designed to stop one type of insect invasion of the boll has led to another insect taking advantage of an ecological opening.

    Thus much more insecticide is being used than pre-GMO cotton needed with the first insect invader.

    Not too happy about all that extra insecticide in the environment.

  9. Actually the writers of the article seem to have a grasp of ecology and the reasons that ecologists have problems with GMO use that is simular to the grasp of many creationists of evolution.

    There are serious problems “sustainable agriculture” sounds like “intelligent design”.
    It is a crazy assertion. At present there are proposals to designate the Monarch Butterfly, once the scommonest butterfly in North America under the Endangered Species Act because GMO crops are leading to the destruction of its habitat. It is the Passenger Pigeon all over again in some respects.

    There are serious ecological issues surounding the use of GMOs and this article dreadfully skirts around it with a poor understanding like Ken Ham talking about evolution.

  10. So in summary some folks is emotional therefor gmo is good. I have seen lots of these sorts of articles over the last few months
    Campaign of some sort?

  11. The complaints are not so much with GMO per se, but Monsanto’s monopolistic practices, anti-environmental practices and the industry’s opposition to labelling. Requesting labelling is not that different from demanding that peanut butter be labelled with a brand and country of origin.

  12. One big problem is that GMO supporters often resort to the same kind of trickery and deceptive tactics normally associated with conspiracy theorists or someone trying to hide something.

    One example is the statement that “genetically engineered crops have existed for as long as agriculture”. Um, no – they haven’t. Simple selective breeding is not the same as genetic engineering, especially as the term is understood by most people. Even a person who is not well versed in science can spot a logical fallacy, and the natural response is to distrust the source.

  13. Miserablegit
    Apr 27, 2015 at 2:32 am

    claims of mutant and indestructible weeds

    The indestructible invasive weeds, already exist.
    They were introduced by reckless agricultural, horticultural and commercial practices.
    GMOs are just a new way of risking creating more of them.

    and talk of giant agribusiness’ having control over what people eat

    There is a historical record of dangerous unregulated abuses of insecticides, fungicides, fertilisers, antibiotics and industrial pollutants, with industries lobbying to obstruct regulatory legislation.

    it is no wonder that people quickly hide behind the fear of the unknown.

    For those who have studied these in details it is fear of the well known dangers.

    such phrases as frankenfoods,

    There are “Franken-foods” around, – but they are generally from sources other than GMO, being more commonly contaminated by industrial pollution and past use of pesticides. .

    http://www.usgs.gov/themes/factsheet/146-00/
    How can I avoid consuming mercury in fish?

    Options for avoiding the mercury in mercury-contaminated fish are more limited than for fish contaminated with PCBs, dioxins and other organic contaminants. Younger fish tend to have lower concentrations of mercury than older, larger fish within the same waterbody. Mercury concentrates in the muscle tissue of fish. So, unlike PCBs, dioxins and other organic contaminants that concentrate in the skin and fat, mercury cannot be filleted or cooked out of consumable game fish.

    People are exposed to methylmercury almost entirely by eating contaminated fish and wildlife that are at the top of aquatic foodchains. The National Research Council, in its 2000 report on the toxicological effects of methylmercury, pointed out that the population at highest risk is the offspring of women who consume large amounts of fish and seafood. The report went on to estimate that more than 60,000 children are born each year at risk for adverse neurodevelopmental effects due to in utero exposure to methylmercury. In its 1997 Mercury Study Report to Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that mercury also may pose a risk to some adults and wildlife populations that consume large amounts of fish that is contaminated by mercury.

  14. DanDare
    Apr 27, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    So in summary some folks is emotional therefor gmo is good. I have seen lots of these sorts of articles over the last few months
    Campaign of some sort?

    A bit like the well sponsored AGW denial campaigns of the carbon industries!

  15. A team of Belgian philosophers […]

    Oh, yeah. Rock and roll, baby: the philosophers have come to town.
    Perhaps we should be looking into the opinions of poets and novelists as well, shouldn’t we?

    despite positive contributions GM crops have made to sustainable agriculture.

    But it looks like comedians have already been asked. Joking aside, it would be interesting… or more likely a very good laugh, to read the article itself. Sadly, it’s not freely available.

  16. A team of Belgian philosophers […]

    They’re clearly casting around to find what other kinds of expert opinion they can buy.

    Contributing to this public opposition, the researchers suspect, is a lack of scientific understanding of genetics

    Meh. When will they bring in some experts to soothe us on issues of business practise…..the real issue? I suspect they are hoping this aspect isn’t so much noticed or discussed.

    There are some great gmo products to come out. If Giles Oldroyd gets his act together self fertilising maize made freely available to all (as planned) could be one of Bill and Melinda’s best recent investments.

  17. I think there are two parts to the question of GMOs that need to be addressed:

    The GMO foods may or may not include all the nutrients that are beneficial to us in promoting good health. Many of the nutrients and phytonutrients are not well understood yet, so assessing whether GMO foods provide the most beneficial nutrition is still an open question. Without all the beneficial nutrients, we may be subjecting ourselves to a (slow!) degradation in our health.
    The other part of the question is the toxic loads that may be added to the foods. GMO foods are often created to withstand different types of toxic loads such as pesticides or herbicides to protect the plant growth. While overall the plants may exhibit better growth, the toxic extras that are carried along can also cause a (slow!) degradation in our health.

    The question is psychological concerns, but rather ensuring that the GMO process is actually doing what we think it is doing.

  18. Yeah,

    I see great potential if good will isn’t squandered on businesses trying to burn up any public support pursuing questionable practices. At the moment I can’t tell the good information from the bad, I simply don’t have a strong enough grasp on the genetics. Trouble as you say seems to be largely around poor ethics from Monsanto and the like, the bad will may well take down some potentially great projects. Frustrating.

  19. It’s not so much the “safety hazards” of GMO, it’s the legal/economic consequences.

    Company invents a better foodstuff, patents the DNA. They may genuinely outcompete natural foodstuffs, but more likely they will force competitors out of business with nuisance lawsuits because their foodstuff’s DNA is found on their competitors lands. The basis for the lawsuit is that this is “theft”, or patent violation, but more likely it is just seeds spread by wind etc. (or even disbursed by the company). In the long run, competitors switch to using the company’s products because it’s just too hard not to, and the company gets a monopoly.

    The law ought to be that the onus is on the GMO company to keep its products on its own property and not “infect” the neighbours, rather than allowing the GMO company to sue the neighbours for being “infected”. Or simply put a clock on the patents, similar to pharmaceuticals. Tackle this, and the rest of the problem is much reduced or even eliminated.

  20. Science shows that people who eat GMOs are at a higher risk of dying as they enter their 90s.

    We’re worrying ourselves to death… and for what?.. Something else to worry about. Good night.

  21. I’d love to see a study about the psychology of GMO proponents. I contend that this thinking (I call it “GMO=Science=Good!”) is similarly myopic and irrational in light of the real-world environmental and economic impacts of this technology, at least as it pertains to the cultivation of open-air GMO crops.

  22. @OP – “The popularity and typical features of the opposition to GMOs can be explained in terms of underlying cognitive processes. Anti-GMO messages strongly appeal to particular intuitions and emotions,” says lead author Stefaan Blancke, a philosopher with the Ghent University Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences. “Negative representations of GMOs–for instance, like claims that GMOs cause diseases and contaminate the environment–tap into our feelings of disgust and this sticks to the mind.

    Apparently it did not stick very well in his mind in relation to GM Round-up-Ready glyphosate resistant cereal crops!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-32677411

    Colombia has announced it will stop using a controversial herbicide to destroy illegal plantations of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine.

    .The decision follows a warning by the World Health Organization (WHO) that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”.

    Perhaps they should have asked biologists and biochemists to do the study on the psychology of cancer cells?
    Philosophers don’t seem to up to the job!

  23. MadEnglishman
    May 1, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    It’s not so much the “safety hazards” of GMO, it’s the legal/economic consequences.

    I think there are also distinct safety hazards with some of them!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-32780624

    ‘Home-brewed morphine’ made possible

    .Scientists have figured out how to brew morphine using the same kit used to make beer at home.

    They have genetically modified yeast to perform the complicated chemistry needed to convert sugar to morphine.

    The findings, published in Nature Chemical Biology, raise promise for medicine but also concerns about “home-brewed” illegal drugs.

    Experts have called for tight control of organisms genetically modified to produce narcotics.

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