Europeans call them ‘Frankenfoods’, and Americans refer to them as ‘fishy’ foods. But scientists generally agree that GMOs are perfectly ...
GMO Series part two: Consumer perceptions
13 October 2020
Europeans call them ‘Frankenfoods’, and Americans refer to them as ‘fishy’ foods. But scientists generally agree that GMOs are perfectly safe to consume, and in some instances can be beneficial to the environment. Why, then, is the public opposed to the production and consumption of GMOs?
What are the main concerns around the use of GMOs?
There have been many concerns raised over the use of GMOs, from their effects on health to potential threats to agriculture and socio-economics. These threats include (but are not limited to) their allergic potential, their adverse health effects, the unintentional spread of modified genetic material, the mutation and expression of genes, and the interaction of modified genetic material with unmodified genetic material. Socio-economically, smaller farmers may face the biggest risks. The increased use of GMOs may result in farmers losing access to plant materials, and so may allow big companies to gain a monopoly over agricultural production. The most common arguments are based on the risks of insecticidal and herbicide-resistant crops. Bacillus thuringiensis
) is an endotoxin that acts as an insecticide. Bt spores produce crystalline proteins that are toxic. The toxin, known as Cry-protein, binds to selectively to a protein receptor in the gut. This selectivity allows for the use of Bt toxins as targeted insecticides – highly effective when controlling pests such as caterpillars, but harmless to other insects, such as bees, and also to humans when ingested. Bt crops require less conventional insecticide, and are therefore better for the environment. On the other hand, herbicide-resistant crops may result in increased use of glyphosate-containing herbicides (a common brand name is Roundup®). The herbicide-resistant trait of certain GMO crops allows farmers to use herbicides on an entire field, and only the weeds (that are not herbicide-resistant) will die. The concern over this GMO commodity is to do with inadvertent consumption of the product; activists argue that these herbicides are not washed off and may be ingested, and that excess glyphosate ends up in both the soil and the water table. In addition, increased use of glyphosate may produce herbicide-resistant weeds; and the unintentional consumption thereof has been argued to cause cancer and other illnesses. One could argue that this is not a direct implication of the use of GMOs, but rather a shortcoming of modern agriculture.
Why do GMOs provoke an emotional reaction in the public?
Psychologists attribute the distrust of GMOs to the perception that these foods are unnatural. Psychologist Paul Slovic found that when it comes to new technologies, we are more likely to make decisions based on our emotional responses than on evidence. Lack of familiarity with and understanding of GMOs results in public mistrust. Evidence suggests that anti-GMO arguments undermine consumer trust and ignite fear. This contributes to widening the divide between the perceived and actual risks of GMOs, and distracts from the opportunities they may offer when managed correctly.
Can we say that GMOs are good or bad?
GMOs are a complex topic that does not allow for the oversimplification of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’; but perhaps we should consider the ‘intention’ and the ‘action’ involved, to elicit a clearer distinction. ‘Intentions’ may largely be good – for example, to ensure that we produce adequate amounts of food, containing the necessary nutrients required, while maintaining efficient production. ‘Actions’ may be more difficult to define. To ensure that GMO use is well controlled, there are stringent rules that apply to GMO production to ensure that these crops are safe. For example, before a GMO product can be released onto the market, the GMO proteins are tested in a simulation of the human gut as well as on animals, to ensure that they cause no adverse effects. In addition, the agricultural practices that accompany the use of GMOs must be managed to ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks – for production, health, and our environment. Unfortunately, ‘GMO-free’ does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with more sustainable or ‘better’ crops. Understanding the risks and the benefits of GMOs to future human health may be easier to predict than what they entail for farmers and the environment. We require proper research and regulation, to ensure that consumers, farmers and the environment are all protected. In our next issue, we will focus on how GMOs are regulated and labelled in South Africa, and what the regulations require for GMO production.