Are You Intuitively Inclined To Be Against GMO Crops?


Back in the day, I used to be a member of the American Society of Plant Physiologists (ASPP), which morphed into the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) in 2001 to better reflect the diverse fields of plant science (read “plant molecular biology”) emerging in the 21st century.

Anyway, I noticed that the ASPB was recently in the news because of a petition it sponsored (which has been signed by well over 1,500 scientists, to date) supporting GMO technology for crop improvement.

The petition has been generally perceived as a warning to the anti-GMO folks that they are hindering the next Green Revolution presumably needed to feed the 9.6 billion people that’ll likely be on this planet in about 35 more trips around the sun (that is, in 2050).

Despite the preponderance of scientific evidence in favor of GMO crops (see here, here and here, for example, and also Refs. 1 & 2 below):

  • Some countries have banned GMOs, including most of the EU countries, Russia, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Tasmania (see here for a list of 36 countries that have banned the cultivation of GMO crops).
  • Recent polls indicate that over 50% of Americans think that it’s unsafe to eat genetically modified foods.

  • Last year, Chipotle declared it was the first national restaurant chain to cook with only non-GMO ingredients (although this claim has been challenged).

    An Unconscious Decision?

    Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of the safety and efficacy of the use of plant genetic engineering for crop improvement, there exists strong public opposition to GMO’s. This opposition has motivated some companies to ban GMO-derived ingredients from their products and some countries to ban, or significantly limit, the cultivation of GMO crops (see above).

    The seemingly irrational, yet strong, objections to GMO crops has long frustrated many members of the plant science community, which presumably motivated the ASPB to sponsor its petition supporting GMO technology.

    This frustration has recently led some plant biotechnologists to collaborate with cognitive scientists in order to understand WHY there is such widespread opposition GMO’s despite the scientific evidence to the contrary.

    This collaboration resulted in a paper published last year (see Ref. 3 below) that concluded that human emotion, not reason, was why arguments against GMO’s had such resonance with the general public. They found that the human mind may be highly susceptible to negative, and frequently emotional, arguments by opponents of GMOs.

    According to the lead author of the paper Stefaan Blancke: “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.” (from: Psychology of the appeal of being anti-GMO).

    So I guess it’s no big surprise that in the case of public opposition to GMO crops, emotions often trump reason (like so many other things in life).

    Please Note: Don’t get me wrong. As discussed in a previous post, there are some rationale reasons to seriously question some GMO’s, including economic, political and ecological arguments.


    1. Klümper, W. and M. Qaim (2014) “A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops.” PLoS ONE, 9(11): e111629. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111629. (Full Text)

    2. Nicolia, A., A. Manzo, F. Veronesi and D. Rosellini (2013) “An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research.” Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, Vol. 34, pp. 77-88. (Abstract)

    3. Blancke, S., F. Van Breusegem, G. De Jaeger, J. Braeckman, and M. Van Montagu (2015) “Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition.” Trends in Plant Science, Vol. 20, pp. 414-418. (Abstract)

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