Public Acceptance of GM Foods

Public acceptance of GM foods – a Lincolnshire farmer’s perspective


Farmers have mortgages, overdrafts, bank managers and families to support. Farming is experiencing the most difficult trading conditions in living memory – no doubt it will improve soon but at this time many products are leaving the farm at prices below the cost of production. Against this background farmers are struggling to grow profitable crops and produce quality food at affordable prices, using acceptable techniques, and in an environmentally sustainable fashion.

Farmers need new crops and safer production methods, be that improvements to the agronomy of current food crops or the development of novel crops for new markets in industry and pharmaceuticals.

This is the attraction of GM crops to farmers.

Most farmers now recognise that GM technology has the potential to do enormous harm to agriculture, but struggle to reconcile the potential benefits of genetic engineering against the rejection of GM foods by their customers. Most farmers now recognise that GM herbicide tolerance is of limited commercial value and that any potential benefits are outweighed by environmental concerns and the risk of alienating the general public.

However some farmers still find the public reaction to GM foods mystifying.

Rather than trying to educate, farmers firstly need to understand their customers.

Politicians and the biotech industry often express frustration at the ‘inaccurate and emotional’ reaction of the public. But to assume that the public is ignorant is not only patronising, but also inaccurate and damaging. People may not understand the scientific and technical detail, but they have sufficient awareness of the issues to develop their own opinions. In particular, the public mistrusts the scientific approach to its own ignorance. Given the experience of BSE and other controversies it seems wise to doubt the reliability of the scientific community.

Scientists leap where angels fear to tread

‘Disagreeing with a scientific estimate of risk is not necessarily irrational: the evidence on the analysis may be incomplete, the scientist may have a vested interest in selecting particular bits of evidence, or there may be more than one particular interpretation of the facts. Interestingly, surveys show that within the European Union, people in those countries with the best understanding of how science works, also tend to be the most sceptical about the ability of science to resolve everyday problems’ (Krebs and Kacelnik 1997).

The public also recognise that in purchasing a product they are condoning the production methods.

People will accept that a product is safe and even desirable but will reject the product for other reasons. Recently we have seen the public reject products from France in retaliation for that countries refusal to accept British beef. We have also seen campaigns for dolphin-friendly tuna (it doesn’t help the tuna, that still ends up in a tin) but in changing the method of catching the tuna the public can console themselves that dolphins are not being unnecessarily slaughtered.

Therefore, even if people accept that GM food is safe to eat, they will still reject the product if they are concerned that the product is environmentally damaging or that the activities of the companies promoting the product could be detrimental to the ‘greater good’.

People now recognise that they can ‘vote with their wallets’.

The public’s rejection of GM foods is based on two main areas:

 Frankenstein foods – the ‘yuk’ factor

The general public do not accept that a plant with genes added from a bacteria is ‘substantially equivalent’ to the original plant.  There is a deep seated, almost a primeval, belief that genetic material should not be moved between animal, plant and insect kingdoms. Ever since the dawn of time, and the first organisms crawled out of the primordial ooze, nature has placed barriers between the biological kingdoms and there is an instinctive belief that it is extremely foolhardy to play with Mother Nature’s rules.

In crops magazine it was reported that a genetic scientist had developed a wheat plant that glows in the dark when short of nitrogen. This characteristic had been achieved by inserting genes from a frog and a firefly into the host wheat plant. When the plant is short of nitrogen, the gene from a frog produces an enzyme that switches on the gene from a firefly causing the wheat plant to fluoresce.

Most farmers know when their crops are short of nitrogen – they turn yellow. Most farmers don’t appreciate their crops glowing in the dark telling their neighbours that they are bad farmers. And the British public are not going to accept the countryside glowing like a patchwork quilt!

This example demonstrates the face of unacceptable genetic science. The general public do not want to be eating genetic material from frogs and firefly in their bread; nor do they find it acceptable that genes from the amphibian order and genes from the insect order should be inserted into an organism from plant kingdom. It is this unacceptable, some would say irresponsible, use of genetic science that makes the general public question the motives of the scientific community.

Risk assessment

Research undertaken by ESRC Global Environmental Change Programme for the European Community investigating the way in which the public assess risk, shows that humans have developed the ability to make extremely complex risk assessments. The ability to make risk assessments, at speed, is a survival technique that is fundamental to the success of our species – presumably this technique has evolved since early man was prey to sabre-toothed tigers.

Humans are able to assess risk in different situations and scenarios, drawing together all the permutations of a given situation. People are also able to assess risk against its potential benefit. That is why the public are able to come to an apparently irrational acceptance of some GM uses and the rejection of others. People are able to make an assessment incorporating issues such as 

  • the same benefit can be obtained by other methods of known risk,
  • the GM material can be produced and used without exposure to non-target organisms and the wider environment.

Science is unable to quantify risk in complex situations. The complexity of the issue means that scientists risk arriving at inconclusive results and in undertaking such studies scientists risk damaging their careers. Therefore it is easier for scientists to narrow the field of study, suppress or ignore evidence of hazard or harm and bring more recognition upon themselves.

Sound science

Politicians, the biotech industry and farming leaders frequently stress the need for decisions on GM food and crops to be made in the light of ‘sound science’. Their approach is to characterise the public as ignorant, irrational or hysterical.

The public are ahead of many scientists and policy advisers in their instinctive feeling for a need to act in a precautionary way.

Research evidence shows that the public are well informed about scientific advance and highly sophisticated in their thinking on these issues. Ordinary people have a grasp of issues such as uncertainty and the public are ahead of many scientists in their instinctive feeling for the need to act cautiously. Research suggests that science cannot provide definitive answers in the case of GM and is, ironically, itself unsound.

Research questions the widespread assumption that the safety and acceptability of GM agriculture can be settled by science alone. In assessing the benefits of any technology science faces a fundamental difficulty: not much is yet known and there are many scientific disputes about what is known.

The GM food issue is not just a matter of ‘sound science’ to be decided upon by experts. There can be no final ‘sound scientific’ answer to the GM food issue and to pretend otherwise is in itself unscientific. Farmers should not confuse the calls for ‘sound science’ to decide the future of GM with the vested interests of politicians and the biotech industry.

Scientists ‘don’t know what they don’t know’ and they often confuse ‘absence of evidence’ of risks as being same thing as ‘evidence of absence’.

Science analyses the effects of single substances, while many of the most serious problems involve interactions between different hazards. Remember CFCs and the damage to the ozone layer; remember fluoride increasing the absorption of lead from pipes; remember BSE.

‘There is a great deal of uncertainty about what the truth and the facts really are’ Michael Meacher, Environment Minister 29 April 1999

How can the public accept expert opinion when the experts themselves can’t agree?

Within the scientific community itself there is a debate raging about the safety of the method of introducing genes into organisms. The process is not necessarily as foolproof as some scientists would have us believe. In order to transfer the target gene, that gene needs to be separated from the rest of the donor DNA, and in separating the target gene sequence bits of genetic material, that is not required, can stick to the beneficial gene sequence and be transferred along with it. Therefore there is a risk that genes carrying the code for unknown characteristics can be transferred into the host with unknown consequences.

Transferring a gene is not just a simple process of ‘sticking it in’ but requires a promoter and a vector. The choice of a promoter and vector in itself can bring additional uncertainties and therefore risks. Most GM plants have been developed using the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMv) as a promoter but this virus has been shown to be unstable and to have a ‘recombinant hot spot’. In other words the promoter is more unstable than a ‘natural’ virus and is therefore more likely to assist the gene in transferring to other organisms – that can include transferring into humans – leading to a risk of mutation and cancer. Cauliflower mosaic virus is also related to human HIV virus. The use of cauliflower mosaic virus can lead to the reactivation of dormant viruses and the generation of new viruses; it is for this reason that many genetic scientists question the wisdom of using cauliflower mosaic virus in a novel technology. 

The future

The Institute of Grocery Distribution, whose members include the major supermarkets and food processors, has produced a report examining possible future scenarios for GM foods.

Scenario one: Market rejection of GM products

This is the current scenario in the UK. Concern is so widespread that retailers and manufacturers removed GM soya ingredients from products and are coming under pressure to remove GM crops from animal feed, and other ingredients produced using GM technology such as additives, enzymes, processing aids, vaccines etc.

Scenario two: Niche markets for GM products

Consumers are more likely to accept GM products if they offer a direct consumer benefit such as vitamin content or modified fat content. The research also suggests

that products involving animals would be least acceptable to consumers. For GM products to become established as a niche market the following may be needed of the products with

  • overwhelming consumer benefits that cannot be met by any other production methods.
  • for which GM free sources would be prohibitively expensive

Given that it is likely to be 10 years before GM products with substantial consumer benefits are placed on the market it is likely to be this long before GM products are reintroduced into the UK, and then only with full traceability. It is also possible that niche markets may develop forn GM products but not necessarily for growing in the UK.

Scenario three: GM products become mainstream markets.

This scenario is probably a decade, if not more, away. For this to occur there will need to be conclusive evidence that GM products are safe to eat and can be produced without adverse effects on environment.

Scenario four: Complete market acceptance of GM technology

For this to be realised, GM crops would need to be grown without issue and consumers would have to view them as natural. There would be no pressure groups and no need to label products. It is unlikely that this scenario will be seen for 20 to 40 years, and there are no guarantees that GM products will ever be accepted completely by the UK public.

The report concludes that the BSE crisis in the United Kingdom had a detrimental effect on consumer trust in food regulation and in the use of a scientific basis alone for controlling these situations. It is recognised that it will take considerable time for the climate of public opinion to change.

For genetic technologies to have a future in food production the public’s fears have to be addressed.

Genetic science itself is not at fault; it is the use to which it is applied.

Genetic science is not going away; nor is the public’s anxiety. Therefore the food industry needs to reassess the application of the technology 

  • Use the technology to enhance nature. If genetic science is used to speed up and augment the way in which nature works, and only work within the biological order, then the public may grow to accept the technology. As understanding of the whole genetic structure of organisms is appreciated it appears that the required characteristic may be lying dormant in the host DNA and only needs to be switched on. Therefore, in the future, the study of genomics and methods such as marker-assisted breeding could hold the key to an acceptable use of the technology.
  • The method by which genes are transferred from one organism to the other has to be absolutely risk free. It is not acceptable to continue developing modified organisms using promoters and vectors of questionable safety. 
  • Farmers and the general public need to be more proactive in identifying areas where genetic technology can be of benefit. The technology should only be applied to areas of real benefit to mankind where there is no credible alternative. Using genetic science for the benefit of shareholders, farmers and the inflated egos of scientists is not acceptable.

Just because something is possible does not always make it desirable

The current situation

In a survey commissioned by Greenpeace UK and conducted by MORI (a respected UK pollster specialising in election predictions) in April 2002, of those questioned 90% said they wanted the labelling of GM and GM free foods; 70% said they would avoid eating GM foods. The results were backed up by a European wide and surveying commissioned by the European Union gave similar results but lower percentages. Citizens had the highest optimism about biotechnology in Sweden, Spain, Portugal and Belgium whilst the lowest is in Greece, the UK and Italy. In a comparison with other technical industries only nuclear power attracts less confidence than biotechnology.

In a report from the Royal Society into the risk to human health from eating GM foods the Royal Society stated their opinion that GM foods are safe to eat. However, they went on to say that because of the possibility of unforeseen allergic reactions that they recommended that pregnant and nursing women, infants and to the elderly should avoid eating GM foods. They also went on to change their previous opinion and state that GM organisms are not substantially equivalent to GM free organisms this a very significant change in scientific thinking from a very influential body of scientists.

At the same time results from the first known trial of feeding GM is to humans was published. In the trial volunteers were fed a burger and a milk shake and their stools investigated afterwards. It was found on that the introduced genetic material past through the human gut

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