SciDev.Net’s GM debate: A postscript

Fruit and veg stall_panos.jpg
Copyright: Dieter Telemans / Panos

Speed read

  • Two decades on, GM remains contentious in many contexts and across the globe
  • Belittling deep-held concerns won’t alleviate fears or convince doubters
  • Opposition won’t just fade — we need to understand and respond to it better

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GM is still contentious two decades on, and our live debate shows a need to dig deeper into people’s responses.

When, earlier this year, SciDev.Net decided to host a live online debate around genetically modified (GM) plants and animals, it was because we knew the topic elicits strong views.

That’s hardly surprising — the GM debate has been steadily bubbling since the early 1990s, and will no doubt continue for years. It is an emotive topic, ripe with the tantalising promise of science and technology coming to the aid of a global food production system facing climate change and an ever increasing human population. It is, however, also a topic dogged by confusion, suspicion, polarised opinion and recrimination.

As a media organisation reaching a global audience, and with strong links to writers, journalists and researchers across the global south, we felt uniquely placed to take the debate beyond the usual regional and institutional confines. And we posed a deliberately general question, ‘What’s wrong with GM?’, in an effort to understand what makes the topic so emotionally charged.

We hoped for a lively, informed debate with plenty of contributions; and with over 600 comments left on the page by closing time, we were not disappointed. I warmly thank all those who contributed — you have left us with a fascinating snapshot of a genuinely active conversation, and a useful resource for readers.

Strong positions

Going over the contributions, what immediately strikes me is the frustration and confusion of scientific researchers working on GM and encountering opposition to uptake of their research. One participant noted that those who do not want to accept GM have failed to understand the evidence — and that if the evidence is presented to them in a clear way, they will change their views.

However, when evidence is presented it seems to have little effect — there are several examples of this happening during the discussion. So what is going on here?

I would suggest that there is a tendency for those promoting GM to see those who refuse to accept it as either foolish or wantonly malicious or both, much like the way people label so-called climate change deniers. 

“Although genetic modification intends to create organisms that better serve various human purposes, GM in food was a major concern.”

Kaz Janowski

But this is unhelpful. Instead, it is necessary to understand the cultural, social and psychological roots of reactions to GM. These were evident in many of the contributions coming from most of the regions we cover.

‘Tampering with nature’

Two central themes emerge from the labyrinth of threads in the debate. One was fears about the environmental impact of GM organisms. The other was fears about GM organisms in the human food chain. And both reflect deeply held concerns about the ethics and effects of tampering with nature.

I feel that this concern relates not only to the direct and immediate physical impacts of ‘tampering’, but also to a fear of unforeseen longer-term repercussions. One contributor explicitly related this to considering the entire ecosystem in which we live as one system — a system in which a change to one part can have unexpected impacts in others.

GM generally relates to organisms used for food, particularly plants. And although genetic modification intends to create organisms that better serve various human purposes, GM in food was a major concern. As the old adage has it, we are what we eat — and in the context of worries about ‘tampering’ with nature, it seems that people worry about introducing repercussions into their own bodies.

Problems with practicalities

Others raised specific concerns about how introducing GM foods into the human food chain is managed. For example, Carla Almeida, our Brazilian panellist, pointed out the difficulties in labelling foods containing GM organisms to make clear the extent of modification, as GM is a process and not an ingredient ‘thing’.

In Brazil, she tells us, foods containing GM organisms have to be marked with a yellow triangle. But this puts off many consumers.

The deeply rooted perception that there is something fundamentally wrong and dangerous to human health about GM foods was often expressed in suspicion — by the participants and on the part of consumers — that those responsible for developing and promoting GM technology possibly have less than noble motives.

A number of contributors see powerful countries, and companies which export GM organisms, as introducing danger — if not knowingly then uncaringly. Interestingly, one contributor from Africa felt that GM crops developed in African countries would be preferable to those developed elsewhere. This suggests that modifications are not all seen as the same — where they somehow ‘fit’ into the local context, they are perceived to be of less concern.

Respect for resistance

Before the debate I didn’t have any particular view on GM. If Mark Lynus, a pro-GM writer and one of our panellists, had offered me £5 to eat a GM carrot, I’d have happily pocketed the money and eaten the carrot. But after the debate I’d have said “Hold it there a minute — I think we need more research”.

What I have in mind is not only research into the safety of GM — it is, more importantly, research into people’s engagement with GM, into what we might call the psychology of resistance to GM. This resistance merits more respect and understanding than it has had thus far.

Some of the debate’s contributors expressed concern about humanity’s potential, through science, to be ‘out of control’. This needs to be both understood and taken into consideration in making decisions about GM.

Kaz Janowski is editor at SciDev.Net

>Link to the Debate "What’s Wrong with GM"