GMO Support May Be an Issue of Trust

Factors influencing U.S. consumer support for genetic modification to prevent crop disease by Katherine A. McComas, John C. Besley, Joseph Steinhardt
in AppLate blight potatoetite

(Full Text)

Key Takeaways:

  • Contextualizing with a real and worrisome disease did not increase support of GM, perhaps surprisingly. Although it’s worth investigating more.
  • Fairness and legitimacy are key issues to GM percetpion, or really most issues of policy.
  • Fairness can be broken down into distributive fairness (does everyone benefit or just one party like a company?) and procedural fairness (was the process fair and reflect public opinion).
  • Much of the public negative’s perception can be more tied to issues trusting the fairness and legitimacy of the decision and policy makers rather than abject ignorance or risk concerns.
  • The best first step for policy makers and people with pull is to incorporate and involve public opinion. People are generally more content with decisions if they feel its fair, and more likely to view it as legitimate even if they don’t agree with it.

Genetic modification is a big tent. Gregor Mendel, if you want to be hand wavy about it, genetic modified (GM) his pea plants in his seminal experiments about inheritance. But GM foods invokes images of trans-genes, or genes inserted from a different species. Some people have ethical and safety concerns over this. But it there’s more than that.

The use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is polarizing and controversial. Controversial in every way except for scientific evidence. There is no evidence that shows GMOs are any more harmful, toxic, or less nutritious than non-GMO foods. In other words, there’s no evidence that says they’re bad in any discernible way. In reality, GMOs serve as good tool for improving crops and if we’re going to make a dent in world hunger and malnutrition, GMOs will likely play a part in it. So it begs the question on why consumer attitudes are split?

People’s beliefs are tangled and intertwined. One may not even know how their beliefs are shaped, even if they believe they do. It can be hard to declutter these beliefs, but possible by asking the right questions, to scientifically determine what people’s beliefs are about certain aspects of an issue – for example if they believe a process is fair. Essentially, researchers are measuring the input of one stream of belief that may or may not affect the output whether supports GM (or any issue, really).

The Cornell study by Katherine McComas, John Besley, and Joseph Steinhardt, sought to investigate consumers attitudes and perceptions about GMOs. The main research question asked was if GM support could be marshaled if the survey asked about a specific problem in the right context. In this case, contextualizing GM in curbing a disease called lake blight versus simply a generic crop disease. There is evidence that consumers could support GM for humanitarian reasons – as in people could get behind disease resistance rather than “crop enhancement.” Some pose public opposition to GM foods might be more closely related to lack of perceived benefits to consumers rather than safety concerns – a classic case of whats in it for me.

Also of interest was the issue of fairness and legitimacy of GM process and decision making. Past research has shown a more complicated relation between GMO support than simply ignorance or lack of knowledge, or even health concerns. It matters if the process was viewed as legitimate and fair. Some things to consider are the distributions of benefits and whether the process itself is fair. Things to consider about the process are whether people believe they had a say in the matter, or if they (meaning the public) feel respected, and if they have access to relevant information. In general, its reasonable to believe then those who support GMOs should view the process as more fair and perceive the process as fair.

In 2011, the online survey presented either a paragraph detailing the dangers crop disease in general or about the danger of the specific disease lake blight. Lake blight was used since it is a disease that resonates, as it was responsible for the devastating Irish Potato Famine and has popped again up in recent times. Both paragraphs in both instances mentioned how “agricultural biotechnology” (genetic modification) could help solve this problem. The investigators wanted to see if using lake blight opposed to a generic and unspecific threat could get more people to support the use of GM foods as a potential permanent and cheap solution. Desperate times?

The only variable was lake blight versus a generic disease, as all of the other questions were identical. The same survey also measured knowledge and familiarity of GM through a basic series of true false questions that included things like “GM animals have genes while ordinary ones do not,” (false) or asking if a tomato with fish genes would taste fishy (also false). Aside from that, respondents were asked how familiar they perceived themselves, again with true false statements. The results were then limited to those said they purchase groceries, i.e. consumers of produce. Then the heart of matter, asking respondents how they viewed genetic modification risks, benefits, fairness, whether they supported their use and research, and if the decision making behind GM was legitimate.

The results of this aren’t so simple to dissect. There were some complicated relations – and demographic factors like race had significant effects, while the effects of a generic disses versus lake was not. Americans were more prone to support GM than Europeans, for what’s it worth. So the answer to the main research question – if using a specific disease by name (lake blight) could increase GM support is no, not really. One reason could be lake blight simply didn’t resonate as a modern and worrisome disease, or is thought of as something that just farmers have to worry about. Or maybe people didn’t read the paragraph closely enough (even though each question mentioned lake blight by name). Maybe the benefits of GM to consumers down the line weren’t made clear enough – a potential cheaper and safer food supply. It’s worth further investigation and future study.

In general, people were more likely to support GM if they believed the process and decision makers were fair – makes sense. The respondents were more likely to support GM the more that they knew about while also being more likely to associate it with the perceived benefits. While those who supported GM were more likely to believe that the process was fair to them. Those who were more aware of the perceived benefits of GM were more likely to support it, unsurprisingly. The more people knew about GM, the more likely they were to support it as well, and those who were not as familiar viewed GM as more concerning. In other words, there was concern that GM is just something that benefits food companies, not something with tangible consumer benefits. This paints a picture that public perceptions of GM is more deeply seeded than ignorance, or can be fixed by just educating the public.

The interplay of fairness and legitimacy might be able to turn public opinion for policy makers. It seems people were measured in their support of GM, they could support it if they viewed it as a legitimate process, with fair decisions making and outcomes. These issues of perceived fairness and legitimacy seemed to matter more than perceived risks such as ethical and health concerns. So assuaging lack of trust may be more important than educating the public on lack of safety concerns. This is difficult in its own right since things like trust and legitimacy are heavily influenced by media and popular portrayals of GM and agriculture companies.

The results show a lack of trust between the decision makers and the consumers in those who may not support GMOs. Maybe its just a general association with big agricultural companies – companies that many have grown weary of. We’ve learned not to trust everything companies like Monsanto do, but we also don’t trust politicians and policy makers that might back Monsanto because we are inclined to believe they profit for it as well.

Policy makers can help curtail this by increasing the fairness and legitimacy of the process. A good first step is to try to get the public more involved. As the authors explain, “Effective message strategies may be one part of this … in many cases, finding ways to solicit, respond to, and incorporate public views will be a fundamental first step.” Involving and incorporating the public is a good way, and probably the best first step, to increasing public support.


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