By Elliot Birtwhistle, Deloitte Consulting
Genetic modification (GM) is the process of altering the genes of a living organism. The words invoke images of secret government labs and scientists in white hazmat suits that inject rodents with glowing liquid. The reality is somewhat more nuanced. Genetic modification either inserts a gene, or a small number of genes into a plant or animal – or ‘silences’ an existing gene(s) to produce a genetically modified organism. The applications are widespread and include medicines, consumer products and commercial agriculture. This week’s blog explores some of the issues surrounding GM foods.
What are GM Foods?
GM foods are foods that contain, consist of or derive from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Over the past two decades, there has been extensive research and development of genetically modified crops that are intended for human consumption.
GM foods fall into classes:
- 1st generation – offer tolerance to herbicides, pests and environmental conditions
- 2nd generation – add value such as improved nutritional qualities.1
How successful have they been?
The first commercially available GM crop was the ‘Flavr savr’ tomato, introduced to the US market in 1994. The product offered extended shelf live through the insertion of a gene that prevents the build-up of a protein associated with softening. Although its manufacturer withdrew the ‘Flavr savr’ shortly after release, it opened the gate for future products. Since then, market growth has been exponential.2
A study by PG Economics Ltd, published in 2018, investigated the socio-economic and environmental impacts of GM crops between 1999 and 2016 and identified the following key findings:
- in 2016, the direct global farm income benefit from GM crops was $18.2 billion, equivalent to having added 5.4 per cent to the value of global production of the four main crops of soybeans, maize, canola and cotton
- since 1996 there has been an increase in ‘Farm Income’ due to GM crops of $186.1 billion (global)
- global GM crop coverage measured in hectares (Ha) increased from 1.66 million Ha in 1996 to 177.6 million Ha in 2016 – over a 100-fold increase
- since 1996 pesticide use has reduced by 671.2 million kg (active ingredient)
- the associated carbon dioxide emission savings since 2016 is equivalent to taking 16.75 million cars off the road
- the USA and Brazil contain the largest plantings of GM crops.3
The study identified the main benefits associated with growing GM crops as:
- increased productivity and reduced land use
- increased economic benefit
- biodiversity conservation
- increased food security, global and local.
Effects range from small to large scale, from rural farms to commercial plantations. Land use dedicated to growing GM crops is increasing year-on-year, with more countries adopting the practice and an increasing number of farmers seeing the benefits.4
What is the public opinion on GM products and foods?
To achieve commercial success, consumers need to accept GM crops. However, opinion varies country by country on whether GM crops should be readily available. The legal and regulatory status of GMOs also varies extensively between countries, which may explain disparities in global opinion.5 US consumers are considerably more likely to purchase GM food products. Moreover, consumers as a whole are still willing to pay more for non-GM products.6
A Montclair State University review of studies showed that the public remain primarily concerned about the impact of GM foods on health. Findings from a variety of studies show that public concerns ranged from general health worries to fears that consuming GM products would permanently alter their own DNA and the DNA of their children.7
These findings are at odds with the views of the scientific community at large. A 2016 study by the US National Academics of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that GM foods are safe for human consumption. This followed a review of 1000 studies, 700 presentations and 80 witnesses conducted over a 30-year period.8 The majority of scientists as well as the World Health Organisation and the American Medical Association mirror this view.9
This begs the question: where are negative opinions and misconceptions formed?
What did research into public opinions find?
The flow of objective knowledge on scientific subjects from source to public is an important part of consumer education. Media sources often act as the main method of communication. However, the media generally filter and edit the content of scientific reports to make it more digestible for the general public. This can result in key messages being lost or misinterpreted.
A 2016 study published in ‘Nature: Human Behaviour’ investigated negative opinions towards GMOs. The study investigated four factors in US consumers:
- objective scientific knowledge in general
- objective scientific knowledge on genetics
- opinions towards GMOs
- self-assessed scientific knowledge
Findings showed that as opposition towards GM foods increased, objective scientific knowledge decreased and self-assessed scientific knowledge increased.
The research team hypothesised that extreme opinions (towards GMOs) could be the result of low objective knowledge combined with a high self-assessed knowledge. The consumers with more ‘extreme’ opinions felt the need to defend them by claiming strong scientific knowledge.10
Will increased objective knowledge change public opinion?
A 2019 publication by the University of Rochester similarly investigated public opinion towards GM foods. They measured objective scientific knowledge and found similar results to those highlighted above. After the survey, participants were offered a free short course on modern genetic modification techniques. The course was designed to push no agenda and only provide the facts behind the science. Following the completion of the course, the majority of participants were more accepting of GM products and more willing to eat them.11
What does this mean for the future of GM consumer products?
Current GM foods primarily stem from plants and plant products. In the future, foods derived from microorganisms and GM animals are likely to be introduced to the market. Future GM techniques may even change nutritional content, remove allergic potential or improve the production processes. Whatever the future may be, it is important that we continue to assess GMO’s on a product-by-product basis and ensure that there is transparency about the origin of the food on the packaging and labelling.
The studies into public opinion referred to above concluded that negative public opinions towards GMO’s would be positive if their objective understanding of the subject increased. To address this matter, the scientific community, industry leaders and policy makers will need to open up a self-reflexive, and multidisciplinary process of technology assessment in which scientific knowledge is integrated with societal knowledge.