What’s So Scary About GMOs? Science Says: Nothing.

What's SoIn general, I try not to share my political opinions on social media or anywhere else where it might disrupt from the type of interaction I’m trying to have. It’s been difficult during election season, with what I perceive as a particularly shall we say passionate presidential race, and finally I have something I must say. I didn’t expect that the thing that would push me over the edge would be the Green Party candidate, Dr. Jill Stein. But then she went and started pandering to the anti-science crowd. In the words of Hall and Oates, I can’t go for that.

Stein’s been in the media the last few weeks for some comments catering to the anti-vaccination movement (where I honestly think she simply blundered in trying to cater to a portion of her constituents) , and seems to have doubled down against science with criticism of Wi-Fi and now genetically modified organisms, or GMOS.

In a (non-modified) nutshell, people who are anti-GMO fear negative health effects from eating foods that have been modified, while pro-GMO folks argue that there is no evidence of harm and genetic modifications enable a better variety and quality of food. The debate is also tinged with opinions about the major purveyors of genetically modified products, such as Monsanto, widely regarded as an evil company (and not without reason). However, and most importantly: There is no scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful.

Accordingly, I don’t have any qualms about eating genetically modified foods myself, at least not from a health standpoint. The scientific community in general hasn’t found any compelling links between GMOs in food and any health issues.

Plus, many of the foods we enjoy eating today would not be possible without genetic modifications. We are able to eat fruits and vegetables out of season in part because they can be bred to grow in different conditions than is “natural.” The papaya, a fruit that I personally devour whenever I find it in a warm clime, would be long extinct if not for genetic modifications. My guess is that not many people are aware of the positive contributions GMO makes to the typical American diet, and might not be so eager to give up their tropical fruits. (And, possibly in the future, their potatoes, another crop that might be saved thanks to GMO technology.)

Are you concerned about food allergies? Well, GMOs also have the potential to help people with severe allergies and food sensitivities, as this example of a hypoallergenic peanut suggests. Imagine a world where a parent of a child with a nut allergy doesn’t have to worry about their child going into anaphylactic shock after accidentally eating the wrong kind of cookie or candy at school. This is a world we may not find if we avoid GMOs due to misplaced fear.

GMOs also have enormous potential to help supply more nutritionally rich foods to the developing world. Take the example of beta carotene-enriched “golden rice,” which can meet around 60% of a child’s daily Vitamin A needs in a single serving. Given that child malnutrition remains an enormously devastating problem globally, it would be a shame to miss an opportunity to address it via genetically modified foods given the lack of evidence of harmfulness.

Any hesitations I do have around GMOs come from the fact that so many of the advancements in food science come out of the mega-companies like Monsanto. I fear a future in which basic foodstuffs become prohibitively expensive because they are patented and their production controlled by monolithic organizations. But I don’t particularly fear any consequences for my health.

Why would I talk about GMOs on a psychology blog? Well, I think the reasons people have for fearing and distrusting GMOs often boil down to common psychological phenomena. Here are a few:

People are under-informed. Research suggests that people don’t know a whole lot about genetically modified foods. That makes sense–people don’t know a whole lot about how many of their foods are produced. Unfortunately in this case, a lack of information leaves fertile ground for misinformation. Combine that with . . .

“Genetically modified organisms” sound awfully scary. The GMO terminology isn’t doing the issue any favors. The term sounds like something grown in a laboratory to do evil.

The term is selectively applied. There are now requirements in some parts of the country to label genetically modified foods (and other companies have proactively begun to label themselves as non-GMO). However, there’s no clear definition about what “GMO” means for labeling purposes. Technically anything with papaya in it should be labeled GMO.

Additionally, genetic modification of foods has been happening for centuries and has led to what we consider “normal” versions of food today. Consider these paintings showing what watermelons used to look like in Renaissance times versus how they look today. What happened? Human-induced genetic modification, is what. Will the labels only be applicable to foods modified within a certain time frame? If not, we may be seeing a lot of GMO labels.

Watermelons back in the day (left) and modern times (right). Courtesy of genetic modification. Image from http://www.vox.com/2015/7/28/9050469/watermelon-breeding-paintings
Watermelons back in the day (left) and modern times (right). Courtesy of genetic modification.
Image from http://www.vox.com/2015/7/28/9050469/watermelon-breeding-paintings

Labels imply importance. Calling out an ingredient in a food is a psychological signal that the ingredient is worth paying attention to. If you see a food label that trumpets “Vitamin B!”, you’ll assume that food item has a particular abundance of Vitamin B relative to other foods. Labeling GMOs sends a subtle signal to shoppers that they are dangerous, which continues to fuel the fear reaction. Unfortunately, the label battle is a hard one to win:

From http://iwastesomuchtime.com/on/?i=104507
From http://iwastesomuchtime.com/on/?i=104507

(In case you couldn’t tell, I’m against labeling GMOs on food packages, at least mandatorily. I think it would be interesting to know what foods I buy that are made possible by GMOs, but only for science geek reasons.)

The companies that control many GMOs are shady. It’s totally legitimate to fear GMOs because the companies like Monsanto that create many of them are impenetrable monoliths. Just this week, Monsanto announced they won’t sell a GMO cotton seed in India because the government will regulate prices on it. This is an example of a company putting their profits ahead of societal benefit. That said, the answer to this concern is more about corporate reform and less about fearing genetic modification.

In conclusion. I think this world holds a lot of room for opinion, and I understand that science isn’t perfect. The scientific community has its own biases like any other professional group, and certain types of research may be preferentially funded or published. But the scientific community is also one of the few professional communities I know of with a shared method of understanding and strict principles that must be adhered to for research. Once something goes beyond a smattering of findings, once the scientific research begins to reach a consensus on an issue, I believe it’s no longer a matter of opinion. Science is our tool for finding truth.

Now pass me the papaya.