Researchers have found that people who strongly oppose genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food know the least about the science behind them, but think they know the most.
A new study in Nature Human Behaviour tested 501 adults on their knowledge of GMOs with a true or false quiz. They were then asked to give themselves a score out of 7 in categories including how willing they would be to eat them, how strictly regulated they think they should be and how they would rate their own knowledge of them.
The researchers found a very strong correlation between opposition to GMOs and lack of knowledge about them.
Lead author of the study, Philip Fernbach, said: “This shows that extreme beliefs stem from an overestimation of knowledge.”
Around 70% of processed food in the U.S. contain ingredients obtained from GMOs. They’ve been around since the 1980s when scientists first began to experiment with genetically engineered crops, and in the last 30 years, the idea of editing the DNA of the food we eat has, if anything, become even more controversial a topic.
Many of the misconceptions around GMOs stem from the idea that they are inherently less healthy than non-GMOs, which is untrue. Humans have been genetically engineering our food for centuries through selective breeding programs. Since the 1970s, farmers have also been using chemicals to induce genetic mutations as a way to create bigger and better crops. These plants aren’t technically GMOs and so do not have to be labelled as such; however, the effects of chemicals on the food we eat has known adverse health effects, whereas genetic engineering has none that are known.
In contrast to a lack of evidence against GMOs, there are many examples of their benefits. As well as more general improvements such as higher yield of pesticide resistance, some GMOs serve a particular function. For example, Golden Rice, named for its bright colour, is genetically engineering so that the grains produce β-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.
Vitamin A deficiency is a global health problem. The issue is mainly focused in Asia where rice, which normally contains few micronutrients, makes up 80% of the daily diet. UNICEF estimates that there are 78 million children in India alone who suffer from vitamin A deficiency. They claim that the substitution of golden rice into the diet could decrease this by 60% and prevent 40,000 deaths per year.
Despite the health benefits, golden rice has many high profile opponents, most notably Greenpeace who have been actively campaigning against its use. They argue that it hasn’t been proven to be an effective solution against child mortality and that it is being used as a way to open the door to more GMOs entering the marketplace.
GMOs are not inherently bad; however, the companies that make them have been known to take advantage of small farms and other businesses. Monsanto, an American biotech company, have a monopoly within the US GMO market.
Monsanto hold patents on all of the crops they have genetically engineered. This means that if a farmer wants to grow it, they have to pay the company. The problem is that there are very few methods to stop cross-pollination between neighbouring farms, thereby making those other farms illegally profiting from the patented crop despite the fact that they have done nothing wrong. In 2013 it was revealed that Monsanto had won over $23 million from suing 410 farmers and 56 small businesses for copyright infringement.
The GMOs Monsanto make may benefit the population in general but, as with any industry, the government need to step up to ensure proper regulation and prevent such a powerful monopoly forming. It can be compared to the pharmaceutical industry where large companies hold patents and now charge extortionate amounts for life-saving medicine.
There is no easy fix to the problems with GMOs use but it is in our best interest as a global population to find one.
Image credit: Toshiyuki IMAI via Flickr