When Chipotle announced earlier this year that it would no
longer serve food made with genetically modified organisms due to
safety concerns, customers rejoiced. But there was one big problem:
Just as more Americans grow wary of GMOs, the scientific community
is moving in the opposite direction. There is now
near unanimity among scientists that GMOs are safe to
eat. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the World Health
Organization and the American Medical Association have all said
that GMOs are fine for consumption.
Yet the divergence between scientists and the American
public has only grown bigger. As of last fall, nearly 60 percent of Americans believed
that GMOs were "generally unsafe." Back in 2000, the population was pretty much
There are many reasons for this, says Jayson Lusk, an
agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, who
has been studying peoples' aversion to GMOs ever since they
were introduced in the late 1990s. Lusk likens the split to the
disagreement that once existed between the scientific community and
general public about climate change, but warns that it can be hard
to change peoples' minds about biotechnology.
I spoke with Lusk to learn why people are so scared of
GMOs, why he believes they shouldn't be, and what it will take to
shed all of the fear. The interview has been edited for length and
Let's get right to the heart of this. When did all this GMO
talk-both positive and negative-start?
The topic was pretty under the radar for many years. There was
some interest when the first biotech crops hit the market in the
late 90s, and there were groups, of course, that opposed them, but
by and large it wasn't a significant majority of people.
What brought it to everyone's attention was, quite frankly, the
sellers of many natural foods and organic products. I don't want to
say that they were stoking people's fears, but they kind of were,
at least to the extent that that helps sales of their own products.
So there was some of that advertising, and the advertising that
pitched products as not containing GMOs, which raised consumer
And you have tracked consumer sentiment yourself, right?
I have conducted a monthly survey for two years now, which
tracks awareness and concern for different food issues. And yeah,
one of the concerns we track is biotechnology and GMOs. So for at
least two years, I have had a kind of monthly finger on the pulse
of knowledge and fear.
What has it shown?
The general sense is that there are ups and downs in how people
feel, but there aren't as noticeable or significant as most
people think. We ask people whether they have heard about GMOs in
recent weeks, and then we ask, you know, how concerned are you
about GMOs right now. The responses vary a bit. Sometimes the views
are more negative, especially if there is some form of negative
news about GMOs out there, but generally it hasn't changed all that
much. I mean, people certainly aren't feeling better about GMOs,
but their aversion has been steady.
What exactly is it about GMOs that people are so
Most people don't have a lot of knowledge about GMOs. The
average person hasn't spent much time thinking about it.
Nonetheless, if they were to see a label about them, they would
likely be averse to them. It's something that seems a little
unnatural, and there's a psychological tendency to desire
naturalness in food and avoid some forms of novelty in food. That
plays into a psychological bias that we have against them.
So it's not necessarily that people have a strong, innate
aversion to GMOs, per se, so much as that they have a negative
reaction to something that seems like an additive or unusual.
So people aren't necessarily averse to GMOs specifically?
Not really. I mean, they are, but it's part of a more general
aversion to biotechnology, to things people don't
In a lot of ways, I think it's akin to anything that appears on
a label that says "may contain X," where X is literally anything
people haven't heard of or don't understand, and because of that,
sounds somewhat strange.
We actually tested this with a label on apples that said "this
label is ripened using ethylene," which is a very commonly used and
safe process. But people were as averse to those apples as they
were to GMOs, simply because they didn't know what ethylene
People aren't really differentiating a whole lot in between
these things. They are just unfamiliar, scary sounding things about
How do you feel about GMO labeling?
If there's some demonstrable health or safety risk, I think it's
without question a must. That's true for, say, peanuts, because so
many people are allergic. It's also true of nutritional labels,
because we know that the number of calories and other nutrients you
consume has a direct relationship to your health.
Those are legitimate reasons to label foods.
But since the scientific community is more or less in agreement
that GMO crops are no more harmful than traditional crops, it is
less clear what is the purpose of benefits of a label.
My aversion is that one. If there isn't a health risk associated
with GMO crops, then why force a mandatory label?
Now, voluntary labels are another thing. There are all sorts of
voluntary labels out there. There are many things that people care
about individually, and are willing to pay more for. There's a
pretty healthy market for voluntary non-GMO products, and I don't
see anything wrong with that. That's not to say that I don't see
abuses of people's trust. I have seen salt labeled as non-GMO, when
salt, by definition, cannot be genetically modified, since it's a
mineral and doesn't contain DNA.
At the end of the day, I guess I see the value in both
arguments. But I tend to side with the anti-labeling side, because
I think the costs are likely larger.
Ok, let's talk about the future now. Would you say that we have
hit the peak of GMO aversion?
You know, I actually have no idea. These things are really hard
to predict. Much harder than most people realize.
Let's suppose you had some really large food safety scare, which
touched GMO crops even tangentially. That would sway opinions
incredibly quickly. Now that doesn't seem like it's going to
happen, and I certainly don't think it will, but it's not out of
The other way it could go, however, is that someone introduces a
biotech crop that captures the public's imagination but doesn't
scare them. That way, people warm up to a GMO crop that is more
approachable, and in doing so, become desensitized to the
bizarreness or strangeness about GMO crops that they once felt.
A perfect example is this new arctic apple, which doesn't brown.
Especially if it isn't made by some big agricultural behemoth, like
But people might also just realize that most of the cheese they
eat is made with enzymes that are genetically engineered.
Diabetics, after all, use insulin that is made from a genetically
engineered bacteria or yeast.
So you think people are less likely to believe in GMO crops if
they're made by big companies?
Definitely. One of the biggest concerns people have is that we
have these big agrochemical companies benefiting from this
technology. It's benefiting them, for instance, by allowing them to
sell more seeds or herbicides.
What people don't know is that some of those crops are now
being produced by non-profits and at universities, and those crops
would actually reduce the need for any chemical inputs or
fertilizer inputs. Some of them get rid of the need for pesticides
and herbicides altogether.
Can you think of other forms of technology that have overcome
A perfect example is pasteurization in milk. At very it was very
strange to people, and no one knew what to think about it. But
today it's widely accepted and viewed as improving the safety of
Another one is microwaves. Everyone has them in their home
today, but back in the 1970s it was close to zero. It took a bit
for them to catch on, for people to warm up to them.
But then there are things like food irradiation that are
perfectly safe but people seem to be permanently skeptical of.
Why do people warm to certain things but not others?
One of the theories about why how people respond to risks is
that their perceived level of riskiness depends on how familiar
something is to them. In general, things that are more unfamiliar
will be perceived as riskier. The other thing is control. When we
believe we have more control over something, we tend to view it as
being less risky.
So if you put those two things together, things that we have
little control of and are unfamiliar will seem extremely risky to
people, even if they shouldn't.
What's interesting is that that actually might point to a reason
to label GMO products. That way people might feel as though they
have more control, that they can avoid them if they choose to, and
therefore view them as being less risky.
Anyway, it's a pretty subjective thing. If people were objective
about risk, they would be much more worried about cars, which kill
more people every year than most anything else. But they're
So you're not willing to bet on whether people will eventually
come around on GMOs?
I don't know what will actually happen, but I can tell you what
I hope will happen.
I hope people will be a bit more optimistic, a bit more positive
in their view of biotechnology. I have a book coming out next year
called 'Unnaturally Delicious,' that looks at all different sorts
of innovations in the food world. I'm very excited about
advancements in the space.
In general, I'd like to elevate the conversation about GMOs
beyond the current one. The truth is that many of the concerns
people have with GMOs, especially those tied to the use of
pesticides and herbicides, will wither away. The technology that we
have coming down the pipeline won't require their use.
I'm not saying we should adopt everything wily nilly. It's very
important that we not introduce new allergens into the food system.
Because biotechnology allow for so many things, there will
inevitably be many things we simply can't approve, and
What I find comforting about the discussion is that it seems to
be somewhat analogous to the discussion on climate change. Early
on, many of the media outlets had positions all over the place. But
as a scientific consensus has formed, there has been much more
agreement about what the science says.
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