by Marion Nestle
Sep 11 2013

Why the public still distrusts GMOs: Nature Biotechnology gives the reasons

Nature Biotechnology, a research journal for biotechnology academics, has the most enlightened explanation I’ve seen recently about why genetically modified (GM) foods don’t go over well with the public (I discussed suchN reasons in detail in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).Its editorial states that despite years of evidence for the safety of eating GM foods,

Consumers are concerned about the close (some might say cushy) relationships between regulators and companies. They are concerned about food safety data being difficult to obtain from regulatory agencies. The revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies and the amounts spent on political lobbying also raise red flags. Even academics have fallen in the public’s esteem, especially if there’s a whiff of a company association or industry funding for research.

Of course, the public’s misgivings about GM food go beyond just the risk to health. Corporate control of the food supply, disenfranchisement of smallholder farmers, the potential adverse effects of GM varieties on indigenous flora and fauna, and the ‘contamination’ of crops grown on non-GM or organic farms all play into negative perceptions. And for better or worse, GM food is now inextricably linked in the public consciousness with Monsanto, which has seemingly vied with big tobacco as the poster child for corporate greed and evil.

What are industry and academic scientists to do about such attitudes?

 Changing them will require a concerted and long-term effort to develop GM foods that clearly provide convincing benefits to consumers—something that seed companies have conspicuously failed to do over the past decade.

Well, yes.  This was the situation in 2003 when I first wrote Safe Food, and nothing had changed by the second edition in 2010.  Or by now, apparently.

This industry still depends on Golden Rice to save its reputation.  Maybe it ought to start working on some of the other issues mentioned in this editorial.


  • markdotgooley

    Nobody wants, it seems, to make the GMOs I want. U Florida tried a while back to engineer wine grapes that resist Pierce’s disease (which makes V. vinifera impossible to grow in Florida) and as far as I know they failed. How about phylloxera-resistant vinifera? How about soy without the saponins and phytoestrogens and such? How about more oilseeds low in omega-6 fatty acids (some sunflower varieties have been produced without gene-splicing already)? Blight-immune American chestnut? Just off the top of my head.

    I suspect there’s no money in any of these.

  • Emaho

    Whether or not we want GMO’s, politicians who do the bidding of Monsanto and others are giving them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, again. See:

  • cabartolotto

    Have you seen this article. I am not convinced that GMOs are safe.

    “The existence of either financial or professional conflict of interest was associated to study outcomes that cast genetically modified products in a favorable light (p = 0.005). ”

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  • JW Ogden

    I am hoping the GM will one day give us nitrogen fixing c4 corn wheat and rice.

  • marcbrazeau

    Also from the Nature Biotechnology article:

    On p. 794, our Feature asks why the same circuitous debates and concerns keep circulating regarding the health risks of GM food. This time last year, a peer-reviewed paper by French scientists, claiming that glyphosate-resistant corn causes tumors in Sprague Dawley rats (Food Chem. Toxicol. 50, 4221–4231, 2012), sparked a media circus about the cancer risks of eating GM corn. This methodologically and statistically flawed study—the claims of which have since been debunked—grabbed headlines around the world and provided shocking images of animals overgrown with tumors.

    The report and others like it making extraordinary claims about health risks represent a tiny minority of all the peer-reviewed studies on GM food. But each time one is published, anti-GM activists seize upon it, no matter how flimsy the evidence or flawed the study design. And all too often, an uncritical and sensationalist media leaps upon negative findings, continuing the cycle of scares, urban myths and downright mistruths
    about GM food, all of which serve to stoke consumer paranoia. How can there be smoke without fire?”

    This hysteria has also meant that the regulatory hurdles are very high. This means that it takes over a decade to bring a product to market at great expense. Public university and NGO researchers are fighting an unnecessarily uphill battle to bring Golden Rice, golden bananas, drought and blight resistant cassava, etc to market. And what do they get for their effort? “What’s taking you so long?” at best. Research crops destroyed at worst.

    With the regulatory hurdles so high of course commercial crops like Monsanto’s RR soy and Bt corn are the products that are fast tracked. And of course the failures, set backs and blind alleys that face conventional and organic breeders under under the spot light, that doesn’t mean they don’t happen. There just isn’t anyone doing a victory dance every time they have a set back.

    Isn’t this Albert Hirschman’s argument from futility a la The Rhetoric of Reaction?

  • Robert Edmonds

    In our country GMO are still distrusted despite frequent ravaging droughts.

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