When it comes to controversial science issues, scientists need to rethink their approach to engaging the public, according to the authors of a new study looking at women’s attitudes towards genetically modified (GM) foods.
The results of focus groups conducted by University of Adelaide researchers, now published online ahead of print in the journal New Genetics and Society, show that if scientists continue to present “just the facts”, most people won’t engage or modify their thinking – even if those people are highly educated.
The results have implications for public engagement across other controversial science issues, such as nuclear energy, climate change, vaccination and water fluoridation, the authors say.
“We were interested in previous surveys that showed women consistently were more opposed to GM foods than men, and so we set out to better understand the reasons why,” says co-author Professor Rachel Ankeny, from the University of Adelaide’s School of Humanities.
“GM foods are an important issue for the community, and with women still playing greater roles in the provision of home care and food preparation, we need to better understand how women are thinking and what their values are in relation to these issues.”
The focus groups included women from a range of educational backgrounds, including those involved in plant and agricultural science, and others in health science, as well as women with lower levels of education.
“All of the women with science backgrounds used evidence to support their stance, but the way they did so came as a surprise to us,” says co-author Dr Heather Bray, also from the University’s School of Humanities and Senior Research Associate in the Food Values Research Group.
“Women who had backgrounds in plant science said the lack of evidence of harm meant that GM food was safe to eat. But the women in health sciences said it was a lack of evidence of safety that made them cautious about consuming GM food. These perceptions are based on two very different concepts of risk, despite both groups being highly educated in science.
“For women without science backgrounds, GM food presented ‘unknown’ risks, and hence was to be avoided. There was a range of other issues apart from the science that arose in our study, a major one being a general lack of trust of science,” Dr Bray says.
Professor Ankeny will travel to Boston, USA this week, where she will speak on a communicating science panel for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and these issues will form the basis of some of the discussion.
“It’s important for scientists to realise that science has economic, social, and cultural impacts, and if people are presented with ‘just the facts’, the discussion leaves out critical topics and values,” Professor Ankeny says.
“People – including people highly educated in science – come to these issues with their own ideas, experiences, and values, and they are not necessarily going to endorse particular scientific theories or applications based simply on facts being provided to them.”
Dr Bray says: “Importantly, our work points to shared food values between those who eat and those who do and would not eat GM foods. Shared values are an important foundation for science communication, and we hope that our work can contribute to the development of better engagement strategies for both scientists and the public.”
Putting aside the arguments for and against GMO food, the fact is that many consumers give it a big thumbs down. As Matthew McDonald writes, food makers stand to benefit from establishing that their products are GMO free.
Consumers want food that tastes good, is good for them and doesn’t cost too much. More and more, consumers are also hoping that their food is produced efficiently and with factors like the environment and global food security in mind.
Supporters and patent owners of genetically modified (GMO) foods claim such products can potentially address these issues right now.
Even so, many Australian consumers don’t want to eat them. The reason is simple. As multiple National surveys have proven, they don’t want to eat them because they don’t trust them.
The fears surrounding GMO food are many. While they may often be overblown, most have not been conclusively refuted by the scientific community.
The public health effects of GMO foods in areas like increased herbicide usage, allergens and antibiotic resistance may be slim, yet they have not been 100 per cent refuted. Despite all the best intentions, testing and legislation the whole story of GM, biodiversity and the intrinsic value of organisms is not set in stone.
As a consequence, consumers tend to approach GMO foods with caution.
“If you put two products side by side and they look the same, smell the same but one’s labelled as certified non GMO and the other one is a maybe you’ll probably sell more of the certified non GM,” Martin Stone Director of HACCP Australia and GMO-ID Australia told Food & Beverage Industry News.
Stone argues that it makes good sense for food makers to establish their products as Non-GMO.
GMO-ID Australia offers businesses in Australia and the Pacific Non-GMO certification, which allows them to do just this.
As Stone explained, the company also counts those who want to export to GMO sensitive markets, such as Europe and the UAE amongst its clients.
The aim of the Non-GMO programme is to provide businesses with independent, third-party certification verifying that their production and handling systems, identity preservation systems, quality systems, and internal controls result in food eligible to be called Non-GMO.
In addition, all clients certificated against the Non-GMO standard are listed on a directory which is used as a tool to connect buyers with suppliers and help clients raise their industry profiles.
GMO food in Australia
So how much GMO food are we consuming in Australia?
“That’s a very difficult question to answer,” said Stone. “It’s uncertain.”
“There’s a few different routes of GMO consumption in Australia. The first of those is legally approved GMO foods which are grown as crops and then highly refined and turned into some sort of food ingredient.”
He explained that, where all traces of the DNA have been removed in the refinement process, the products do not legally have to be labelled as GM.
“A good example is canola oil. There’s a great deal of GMO canola grown in Australia that’s turned into oil and then consumed. We don’t know exactly how much of this refined GMO material is used from both domestic and international sources.”
“The second route is where there’s a legally approved GMO product and that’s consumed whole or in a form that is not so highly refined. In that case it needs to be labelled.”
As mentioned, there are very few if any such products consumed in this country. “It’s almost pointless putting GMO soy on the market where you have to label it because people wouldn’t buy it,” said Stone.
The third route includes illegal products which are mostly grown overseas. The amount of such foods in this country is almost completely unknown.
“…European regulatory sources indicate that there’s a great deal of GMO rice floating round in the Chinese market and papaya out of Thailand is contaminated heavily with GMO papaya. So if you’re eating dry papaya in breakfast cereals or things like that it could well be there. These are illegal GMO products which have escaped into the market place,” he said.
Pointing to the number of GMO food applications currently before FSANZ, Stone said the GMO food market is growing. Applications include those for things like corn, soy, potatoes, wheat, sugar beet, and rice.
Testing is a key part of the certification process offered by GMO-ID.
In simple terms, genetic modification involves cutting a piece of DNA that bears a particular trait from one organism and inserting it into the DNA of another (target) organism.
“…you can imagine that DNA is a strand or a string. Basically when you make these GMO products you cut that string somewhere… You take out a little bit of it and then you replace it with a little bit of something else,” said Stone.
“When you put that additional genetic information in there there’s the join between the two ends of the string and at the join typically marker genes are found. And you can search for those marker genes which tell you that something (you don’t know what) but something has been put into the DNA strand at that particular point,” said Stone.
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests are used to do this. These involve firstly isolating and then multiplying DNA up to a level that makes it possible for DNA technicians to look for specific markers which tell them that the product is genetically modified.
“With legal genetically modified product that’s a relatively easy task because when you have a legal product, these are typically patented by large companies so you know what to look for…like a formulation if you like,” explained Stone.
“The illegal GMO products are a little bit more difficult but they still carry some classic markers that the DNA technicians looks for.”
PCR tests are accurate (down to about one part per million) and digital PCR testing, which is likely to soon be possible, should deliver Limits of Detection of around one part per billion.
Apart from testing products to determine whether or not they are GMO free, the certification process also involves identity preservation. Given the complex global supply chains of today’s food industry, this is crucial.
As Stone put it, identity preservation means “…you know what’s happened to it, you know where it’s been, you know what it’s been mixed with and stored with and stored alongside all the way through the supply chain.”
“So you can guarantee that what started off as non-GMO finishes as non-GMO in the product that you use here in Australia.”
Considering that GMO foods are common in some parts of the world, identity preservation has to be robust. For example, in the US, a large amount of GMO Corn and GMO soy is grown. These crops yield many products used as ingredients by the food industry such as dextrose and proteins.
“If you are using a dextrose type product out of America then it’s had every opportunity to become infected with genetically modified material so you need a very good identity preservation system to be able to prove and control the non-GMO status,” said Stone.
Finally, asked if other non-GMO claims not involving certification by GMO-ID or a similar organisation can be trusted, Stone was adamant. “They can’t be,” he said.
“You see it around a little bit actually, where people have put non GMO in a small star or something similar on the label. That’s based on the fact that probably their ingredient suppliers don’t trigger the labelling requirements from FSANZ in this country.
“We take a lot more thorough look at the whole process …so if you find that a product that is claiming to be non GMO actually does contain GMO material almost certainly it will be a self-declaring product, a non-certified product.”
The fast-approaching July 1, 2016, deadline for Vermont’s new labeling law – and a new federal proposal that would set a national system for disclosure – for genetically modified (GM) food has provoked a range of responses from food manufacturers while reigniting debate about the need to balance the weight of scientific evidence against consumer demand for transparency. At the center of the debate lay questions of trust in science and how the ways we communicate risk serve to increase or decrease that trust.
As the debate over GM food labeling continues to rage, it’s worth looking at the reasons consumers support or oppose labeling. A body of communication research, including a recent study we co-authored, suggests that consumers’ views on GM foods reflect their values and how information about labeling is communicated to them more than the actual science.
Shouldn’t latest science settle it?
The fault lines over GM food labeling at this point are well-established.
On the one hand, labeling proponents argue that consumers have the right to know what is in the food they purchase so as to avoid possible health risks associated with GM ingredients. Others argue that labeling gives consumers the ability to avoid GM ingredients as a larger ideological statement about agro-food industry.
More generally, one could say that resistance to labeling flies against consumer demand in an age when experts admonish us to read nutrition labels to watch our sugar intake and avoid certain types of fats. Also, not telling people makes it look like there is something that the food manufacturers are hiding, which can damage the trust consumers place in them.
On the other hand, labeling opponents point to a lack of scientific evidence that GM ingredients are harmful to public health or the environment and argue that labeling will present an unnecessary financial burden on food manufacturers. Others note that consumers who wish to avoid food with GM ingredients already have the option to purchase organic food products, which provide non-GM options.
Regarding the balance of scientific evidence on safety, a recently released National Academies of Sciences (NAS) report would seem to lay to rest the issue. Its exhaustive review of over 900 scientific publications found, among other things, no solid findings showing a difference between the health risks of eating genetically engineered or conventionally bred food ingredients.
It is doubtful, however, that the NAS report will entirely remove public doubt about the risks or demands for labeling.
Research on public risk perceptions shows that it is not only the objective scientific assessment of risk that matters but also the subjective qualities of risk. These include whether people have control over their exposure to potential risks and whether they believe the risks are well-understood by scientists. Trust in the risk managers is also key, and people want to have a voice in decisions that ultimately affect them.
Value of consumer involvement
In terms of risk perceptions, results from a 2015 Pew Center study found that 57 percent of Americans did not believe that GM foods are safe. The Pew study found that 67 percent do not believe that scientists yet have a clear understanding of the public health implications of GM foods. Indeed, the Pew study found that the strongest predictor of believing that GM foods are safe is whether people believe scientists have a clear understanding of the risks.
Some may see this opinion divide as evidence of an irrational public. We see it as evidence of communication processes that have paid inadequate attention to how consumers’ values affect risk-based decision making.
Rather than having a voice in the decisions, consumers are mostly asked to trust the experts, typically a faceless government institution or regulatory body. This can lead to a disconnect in what scientists and consumers consider the relevant facts in a decision.
Our own research, recently published in the Journal of Risk Research, found that people are much more supportive of a labeling decision (regardless of the outcome) when they were told that food companies had considered public input before making their decision. Therefore, recounting consumers’ influence in GM labeling decisions is an important factor on how people support the decisions.
Examples show how some organizations are recognizing the importance of conveying this information. In the press release accompanying the recent NAS report, Committee Chair Fred Gould offered this statement: that the committee “focused on listening carefully and responding thoughtfully to members of the public who have concerns about GE crops and foods….”
Similarly, Campbell’s President and Chief Executive Officer Denise Morrison said in a New York Times article about the food manufacturer’s labeling decision, “We’ve always believed consumers have a right to know what’s in their food…. We know that 92 percent of Americans support G.M.O. labeling, and transparency is a critical part of our purpose.”
Examining the effect of these statements remain questions for future research. Our previous work would suggest, however, that underscoring how public input was considered may likely lead to greater support for the NAS conclusions or Campbell’s decision, even if people do not wholly endorse the outcomes.
Although transparency is not a cure-all, including people in the decision-making process and providing information about how an organization reached its decision can lead to greater decision acceptance.
To this end, incorporating consumers’ values in decisions that affect them, such as what ingredients manufacturers put in their food products, and communicating that back to the public can go a long way toward building trust and bridging the gaps between scientific and public understanding of risk.
The U.S. Senate this week reached a compromise to require food manufacturers to label foods that contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, a bill that would preempt state-level laws. The deal comes only one week before Vermont’s law to require GM food labeling will go into effect. If the Senate compromise bill is voted on and passed by a supermajority and signed into law by President Obama, Vermont’s law will be superseded.
The Vermont law stipulates a positive declaration – that is, a label must indicate there are some ingredients are genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The Senate proposal, which backers said is meant to avoid a patchwork of state laws, gives food manufacturers a number of options for how to disclose which products have GM ingredients. Companies could place text on labels, offer a Quick Response (QR) code that would be read with a smartphone or provide a phone number or website with more information. Organic products can be labeled “non-GMO.”
Although the Vermont law and the Senate bill bring the question of labeling to the forefront, the debate over GM food and consumer education has been percolating for some 25 years.
I have studied the social science research about whether and how GM foods should be labeled. In my view, the proposed federal legislation, while consistent across the country, makes it very difficult for consumers to obtain the information they want to know – namely, whether a product has been produced using GM technology or ingredients.
What labels convey
In a 2013 study, Arizona State University professors Gary Marchant and Guy Cardineu identified five issues that are important to the decision of whether or not to label:
the legality of labeling requirements
costs and benefits of labeling, and
risks and benefits of GM foods.
They concluded: “While the case for GM labeling seems compelling on first appearance, a closer examination of the scientific, legal, economic and policy arguments and evidence demonstrates that compulsory GM labeling is unwarranted, unnecessary and being manipulated by a cynical and self-serving campaign funded and organized by the organic food industry.”
But I have examined the current state of evidence and have come to the opposite conclusion, as have American courts and several major corporations.
Labels play a significant role in facilitating consumer choice in the case of credence goods. These are goods for that consumers cannot determine, through search nor experience, whether a product contains an attribute or quality they prefer, such as the use of GM technology. Labels convey to consumers a desired or undesired attribute.
On the question of legality of labeling requirements, it is worth noting that legal arguments against labeling have failed. Challenged by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association of America and several other trade groups, the Vermont law was upheld in April 2015. And, while bill HR 1599 passed the U.S. House of Representatives in July of 2015, which would have prohibited states from promulgating their own labeling laws, it failed to pass the U.S Senate in March 2016.
But the Campbell’s company has publicly stated the cost of labeling is negligible. If there are costs, they will not be passed on to consumers. Company spokesman Tom Hushen said, “To be clear, there will be no price increase as a result of Vermont or national GMO labeling for Campbell products.”
Changing corporate positions
That leaves only Marchant and Cardineu’s fifth point: the risks and benefits of GM foods. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine earlier this year released an exhaustive report on GM foods and found there is no evidence of health risks from genetically modified ingredients.
But pro-GM labeling advocates have not used the GM safety issue in their arguments. Instead, they focus on consumers’ right to know what is in their food and how it is produced.
Several major corporations, which have previously spent millions of dollars to defeat mandatory GM labels, have indicated they will label their products or have already. Campbell’s, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Mars and ConAgra had said they would label their products nationwide in order to be in compliance with Vermont’s anticipated law. PepsiCo and Frito Lay have quietly begun to label already without public fanfare.
Campbell’s President and CEO Denise Morrison said in a statement, “Our decision (to label) was guided by our Purpose; rooted in our consumer-first mindset; and driven by our commitment to transparency – to be open and honest about our food. I truly believe it is the right thing to do for consumers and for our business.”
However, the Senate proposal, if it comes into law, does not make it easy for consumers to actually find out whether a product has GM contents at the supermarket.
One food manufacturing company may choose a QR code, another a label, another a symbol and another a toll-free number. If consumers do not see a disclosure using words, as the Vermont law requires, they look for a symbol. If they don’t see a symbol, they scan the product with a smartphone or call a telephone number. If that doesn’t provide information, they go to a website. For a consumer purchasing multiple products, this will be a cumbersome process. While it has been said that Vermont’s law, in isolation, may cause chaos for industry, as proposed, the compromise bill will cause chaos for consumers seeking more transparency in the food system.
In the months ahead, we will see whether the Senate bill is turned into law and how food makers choose to comply with any disclosure requirements. But given the strong consumer support for labeling, it is unlikely that the debate over GM food labeling will die down.
In the past week you’ve probably eaten crops that wouldn’t exist in nature, or that have evolved extra genes to reach freakish sizes. You’ve probably eaten “cloned” food and you may have even eaten plants whose ancestors were once deliberately blasted with radiation. And you could have bought all this without leaving the “organic” section of your local supermarket.
Anti-GM dogma is obscuring the real debate over what level of genetic manipulation society deems acceptable. Genetically-modified food is often regarded as something you’re either for or against, with no real middle ground.
Yet it is misleading to consider GM technology a binary decision, and blanket bans like those in many European countries are only likely to further stifle debate. After all, very little of our food is truly “natural” and even the most basic crops are the result of some form of human manipulation.
Between organic foods and tobacco engineered to glow in the dark lie a broad spectrum of “modifications” worthy of consideration. All of these different technologies are sometimes lumped together under “GM”. But where would you draw the line?
Think of carrots, corn or watermelons – all foods you might eat without much consideration. Yet when compared to their wild ancestors, even the “organic” varieties are almost unrecognisable.
Domestication generally involves selecting for beneficial traits, such as high yield. Over time, many generations of selection can substantially alter a plant’s genetic makeup. Man-made selection is capable of generating forms that are extremely unlikely to occur in nature.
Unknowing selection by our ancestors also involved a genetic process we only discovered relatively recently. Whereas humans have half a set of chromosomes (structures that package and organise your genetic information) from each parent, some organisms can have two or more complete duplicate sets of chromosomes. This “polyploidy” is widespread in plants and often results in exaggerated traits such as fruit size, thought to be the result of multiple gene copies.
Without realising, many crops have been unintentionally bred to a higher level of ploidy (entirely naturally) as things like large fruit or vigorous growth are often desirable. Ginger and apples are triploid for example, while potatoes and cabbage are tetraploid. Some strawberry varieties are even octoploid, meaning they have eight sets of chromosomes compared to just two in humans.
It’s a word that tends to conjure up some discomfort – no one really wants to eat “cloned” food. Yet asexual reproduction is the core strategy for many plants in nature, and farmers have utilised it for centuries to perfect their crops.
Once a plant with desirable characteristics is found – a particularly tasty and durable banana, for instance – cloning allows us to grow identical replicates. This could be entirely natural with a cutting or runner, or artificially-induced with plant hormones. Domestic bananas have long since lost the seeds that allowed their wild ancestors to reproduce – if you eat a banana today, you’re eating a clone.
Selection – both human and natural – operates on genetic variation within a species. If a trait or characteristic never occurs, then it cannot be selected for. In order to generate greater variation for conventional breeding, scientists in the 1920s began to expose seeds to chemicals or radiation.
Unlike more modern GM technologies, this “mutational breeding” is largely untargeted and generates mutations at random. Most will be useless, but some will be desirable. More than 1,800 cultivars of crop and ornamental plants including varieties of wheat, rice, cotton and peanuts have been developed and released in more than 50 countries. Mutational breeding is credited for spurring the “green revolution” in the 20th century.
GM technology doesn’t have to involve any direct manipulation of plants or species. It can be instead used to screen for traits such as disease susceptibility or to identify which “natural” cross is likely to produce the greatest yield or best outcome.
Genetic technology has allowed researchers to identify in advance which ash trees are likely to be susceptible to ash dieback disease, for instance. Future forests could be grown from these resistant trees. We might call this “genomics-informed” human selection.
Cisgenic and transgenic
This is what most people mean when they refer to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – genes being artificially inserted into a different plant to improve yield, tolerance to heat or drought, to produce better drugs or even to add a vitamin. Under conventional breeding, such changes might take decades. Added genes provide a shortcut.
Cisgenic simply means the gene inserted (or moved, or duplicated) comes from the same or a very closely related species. Inserting genes from unrelated species (transgenic) is substantially more challenging – this is the only technique in our spectrum of GM technology that can produce an organism that could not occur naturally. Yet the case for it might still be compelling.
Since the 1990s several crops have been engineered with a gene from the soil bacteriaBacillus thuringiensis. This bacteria gives “Bt corn” and other engineered crops resistance to certain pests, and acts as an appealing alternative to pesticide use.
This technology remains the most controversial as there are concerns that resistance genes could “escape” and jump to other species, or be unfit for human consumption. While unlikely – many fail safe approaches are designed to prevent this – it is of course possible.
Where do you stand?
All of these methods continue to be used. Even transgenic crops are now widely cultivated around the world, and have been for more than a decade. They are closely scrutinised and rightly so, but the promise of this technology means that it surely deserves improved scientific literacy among the public if it is to reach it’s full potential.
And let’s be clear, with global population set to hit nine billion by 2050 and the increasingly greater strain on the environment, GMOs have the potential to improve health, increase yields and reduce our impact. However uncomfortable they might make us, they deserve a sensible and informed debate.
James Borrell is a PhD student in Conservation Genetics, Queen Mary University of London.