A little knowledge goes a long way toward getting people to eat GM foods

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Increasing people’s knowledge about the science of genetically-modified foods may be the key to softening their skepticism towards these products. So says a study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology, which found that the more consumers are informed about how genetic modification works, the less suspicious they become, and the more willing they were to eat GM foods.

The safety of genetically-modified foods is almost unanimously agreed upon by scientists – but anti-GM skepticism persists amongst consumers. Understanding the roots of this skepticism is important, because it relates to our future food security: genetically modification enables huge potential benefits, such as crops built to be climate-resilient in various ways – which we will need to exploit in the future.

But while previous studies have sought to understand anti-GM sentiment along moral, political, and religious lines, the international team of scientists on this new study wanted to examine the role of scientific knowledge in shaping – and changing – people’s beliefs.

To determine this, they carried out a raft of mini-studies, involving questionnaires to determine how people’s views on GM were coupled with their scientific knowledge. In the first and second mini-studies, they queried a collective 1,500 US participants on whether they would eat genetically modified foods, and then applied a series of ‘true-false’ questions to determine their baseline scientific knowledge.

The second study also included 14 questions to determine participants’ knowledge of GM science, specifically. People were polled on their religious views, political persuasions, age, education levels, sex, race, and where they lived, to determine what role these factors might play.

A third study expanded the survey beyond the US into the UK and the Netherlands: this was essential because GM foods in many European countries are heavily regulated – which could be influencing people’s perceptions there.

What emerged uniformly across the three countries was that understanding the science of GM foods was by far the strongest predictor of a person’s opinion on these products. So, the less people knew about how genetic modification works, the more likely they were to be sceptical of it. This far outweighed the impact of their political and religious views – or any other factor.

Interestingly, the studies revealed that the impact of someone’s knowledge of GM science actually stood apart from their general scientific knowledge. In other words, someone might have a decent understanding of general science – but if they knew little about GM science specifically, they were more likely to avoid GM foods. This made GM knowledge uniquely reliable in predicting how someone would feel about consuming these products.

Crucially, to test out this finding, the researchers also carried out a fourth mini-study: this time, they taught the basics of GM science to a group of participants over a five-week period, and evaluated whether their opinions changed as the course progressed. This revealed that the more people grasped about genetic modification over the five weeks, the more willing they became to consume genetically-modified foods.

These results suggest that with GM foods, there’s a unique opportunity to use education to correct people’s misconceptions – compared to other divisive topics like climate change, where skepticism is often deeply entangled with people’s political views, and therefore harder to address with facts.

The researchers also emphasize that defensively targeting GM-skeptics, or blankly insisting on the safety of genetically-modified foods – tactics that have been used in the past – won’t really do much to change people’s perceptions. 

Instead, they suggest, “time and money is better invested in basic but targeted education to address the general underlying misconceptions about science.”

Source: McPhetres et. al. “Modifying attitudes about modified foods: Increased knowledge leads to more positive attitudes.” Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2019.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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