David Ropeik, instructor in the Environmental Studies Program, Harvard Extension School | March 8, 2017
• 2017 may be a turning point in public acceptance of GE foods
• Federal law requiring labeling of GE foods defused opponents key issue
• Labels on many popular items unlikely to scare consumers away
• Gene editing, new scientific techniques undercut claims GE foods unsafe because they are unnatural
• Media criticism of ‘science denial’ of GE opponents likely to increase
arlier that day, the four friends had played a round of golf. It had been baking hot for a month but the grass on the course was still green. Afterwards they had cooled off with papaya smoothies in the club house, and then headed back to Arthur and Felicia’s place for dinner. Now they were clearing the table.
“The salmon was great, hon,” said Felicia. “Firm. Fresh.”
“I got it at Bounty of the Sea,” Arthur replied. “They have the best stuff. Farmed, but so fresh.”
“The potatoes au gratin were great too,” said Phyllis, one of the guests. “Crisp, clean, almost sweet!”
“And the apple pie!?” said Latrell, Phyllis’ boyfriend. “To DIE for! So juicy. It’s not even apple season. Where’d you get such fresh stuff?”
“Whole Fruits,” Arthur replied. “They fly in fresh produce from all over the world.”
Salmon. Potatoes au gratin. Apple pie a la mode. A delicious meal. And all of it the product of genetic engineering (GE): the AquaAdvantage salmon, approved in Canada a few years ago and now in the U.S. and many countries, an Atlantic salmon genetically modified to include a growth gene from another salmon species so it will grow faster, need less food, produce less waste, and reduce the cost to consumers; the Innate potatoes, a hybrid created not by adding a gene but simply by turning one off to prevent the potatoes from bruising and turning brown when they’re dropped, and made in cheese curdled with chymosin protein taken not from a calf’s liver but by splicing the gene from the calf that produces it into bacteria that then churn out mass quantities of that same natural protein; non-bruising Arctic apples that use the same genetic modification used in the potatoes, fresh although they had to be shipped from New Zealand; served with ice cream from cows fed on “Bt” corn that had been genetically altered to carry a gene from a bacterium that produces a natural insect repellant frequently used on organic farms.
And that was after a round of golf on grass created with biotechnology by splicing genes from various types of grass into a hybrid that stays green even though it requires less water, fertilizer, and grows more slowly so it needs less mowing. Followed by smoothies made from genetically modified papayas from Hawaii, where the insertion of a gene from a virus that was threatening to wipe out the plant essentially vaccinated the plant against that virus, saving the entire papaya industry in Hawaii.
Arthur and Felicia, Phyllis and Latrell, had truly had a GE day. The interesting thing was, they neither knew, nor cared.
Only a few years before, the whole idea of creating new hybrid plants and animals by genetic engineering had been a controversial issue. That controversy had been driven in large measure by environmentalists who worried about what tinkering with genes would do to human and environmental health and by the organic food industry that wanted to protect their approach to agriculture, and their profits. Frankenfoods, these GE products were called. Dangerous. Unnatural. Genetic engineering, opponents ominously warned, was like “playing god.” These crops, they said, were the spawn of the commercial agriculture industry, mass scale agriculture that was ruining the natural world. Mega corporations like the great industrial Satan Monsanto were threatening human and environmental health, GE opponents warned, by creating whole new species in the laboratory, not the garden, taking genes from one species and sticking them in another, producing transgenic hybrids that Mother Nature could never create.
It was a passionate campaign to stigmatize the whole concept of genetically modified foods as dangerous, in order to kill an entire technology that deeply offended strongly held values and beliefs. And the fears of this “unnatural” process resonated with a public already concerned about the damage that many modern technologies, and corporations, had done to the natural world.
The seed companies and farmers and food producers who benefited financially from GMOs—genetically modified organisms—fought the fearmongering with public relations campaigns and lobbying in Washington D.C. and state capitals, and massive spending to defeat the laws that opponents proposed to try to kill what the supporters of genetic engineering preferred to call agricultural biotechnology.
The scientists that had helped develop these powerful biotechnological tools also fought back against the fearmongering, arguing that opponents were being irrational and that their ideology distorted their view of the facts. Scientists pointed to decades of research on the effects of each individual new GE hybrid on both human health and the environment—research that consistently found no evidence of harm to people, and environmental effects that were negative in some cases, positive in others, similar to the effects of all new food crops, GM or not, and nowhere near the doom-saying catastrophe that opponents predicted.
Caught in the middle were the news media, which initially trumpeted the alarms of GMO opponents but gradually had begun to report that those fears were not supported by the evidence, and how opponents were doing just what they lamented when political conservatives refused to accept the evidence about anthropogenic climate change…they were denying the science facts, blinded by their values as to what the research actually said.
The effect of this fight was predictable. It got lots of attention, and the acronym “GMO” was stigmatized in the public mind. Opinion surveys found that a majority of the public thought genetically engineered foods were potentially risky, and wanted products containing GE ingredients to be labeled so consumers would be informed and have a choice about what to eat. This was predictable, a reflection of the fact that people inherently want choice when faced with any sort of potential risk more than it reflected deep public apprehension about GMOs. One survey taken at that time found that people also wanted food labeled if it contained DNA.
More probing research found that public fears of GE food were like many others, widespread but shallow. When more thoroughly questioned, most people didn’t know anything about the issue. Few knew what GMOs were, how they were made, or about the scientific evidence that had found no human health risk. Like many controversies, the fiercest fighting over GMOs had been between combatants with a direct stake in the issue, either because the technology offended their values, or for economic reasons. The general public didn’t know much about the matter.
That was the general state of things in 2016, after the fight had been escalating for more than a decade: a mildly concerned public only casually aware of the issue, a highly motivated core group of opponents warning that GMOs and ‘corporate agriculture’ posed a profound threat to human and environmental health, and GMO advocates fighting back to preserve an agricultural technology that they said offered broad benefits to human, animal, and environmental health, and plenty of profit.
But that summer things started to shift, and they shifted because of a significant miscalculation by opponents of GE food. Anti-GMO activists had largely lost their fight to kill the technology on scientific grounds alone; the evidence of health and environmental harm just wasn’t there. So they had focused on fighting for labeling, believing that people would be afraid to buy products that contained GE ingredients. The opponents were encouraged by surveys and headlines suggesting that their views had caught on. They hoped that labeling—putting on packages what they saw amounted to a skull-and-crossbones danger sign—would scare buyers away, and that the technology they couldn’t kill with scientific argument would be rejected at the cash register.
This tack was understandable. It had worked in Europe, where a few early GE products were labeled and brought to market by food producers as test cases, one product at a time. That allowed opponents to focus their attacks not on the technology generally, but with high profile campaigns targeting those individual products. That worked, in no small part because environmental concerns were uniquely high in Europe, and trust in government health and safety regulators was particularly low, due to a series of events, like the Mad Cow disease outbreak in the 1990s that had put the food supply and the public at risk. As a result, many European governments were being much more precautionary about environmental issues generally, and genetically engineered agriculture specifically, than governments elsewhere. This approach also allowed those governments to damage America’s significant advantage in the global agricultural market, in which U.S. producers had been selling GE crops for years.
So in light of how labeling had helped kill GE agriculture in Europe, and having failed to make their case to regulators based on the scientific evidence, and sensing that public apprehension about GMOs was rising, opponents of the technology in the United States made labeling the centerpiece of their campaign.
And it seemed to be working. In a market where sales of organic food and anything labeled ‘natural’ had already been growing for some time, companies got thousands of their products stamped with a “Non GMO” label (as certified by an avowedly anti-GMO organization supported in part by the organic food industry). Food companies put the ‘Non GMO’ label on products from water to salt that couldn’t possibly contain GE ingredients in the first place.
In addition, some manufacturers switched the ingredients in some of their most popular products, so they could label them “GMO free” to protect sales. And many grocers that sold both conventional and organic foods promised to label all their products. There were some positive results from their campaign. Farmers who had chosen to grow GE versions of their crops, which increased productivity, reduced the use of more toxic pest control chemicals, and reduced need for soil-damaging tillage practices, begrudgingly switched out of those crops as the market for them shrank.
Buoyed by these successes, GMO opponents pressed for a national law requiring labeling of any foods containing GE ingredients, hoping that such a label would scare consumers away. Against powerful agricultural and commercial interests in Washington, they had no luck in Congress or with federal agencies. So they campaigned at the state level to establish labeling requirements, and though they failed to overcome massive spending by corporations to defeat public referenda in several states, the Vermont legislature passed GMO labeling requirements with a July 1, 2016 effective date. Food retailers were thrown into turmoil.
Many major food companies, especially those with deep enough pockets to afford to create new labels, did so, and all sorts of foods hit the shelves in Vermont with labels like “produced with genetic engineering” or “partially produced with genetic engineering”. Some labels included websites like whatsinmyfood.com that consumers could visit to find out more. Some companies stopped selling some items in Vermont, where sales of products containing GM ingredients weren’t substantial enough to warrant the re-labeling costs.
Before anyone could measure what impact this was having on sales, GE opponents finally got what they wanted in Washington: mandatory labeling. Congress, acknowledging that 50 different labeling systems in 50 different states would be unmanageable for food com- panies that sold products across the country, created a single national labeling requirement. The law allowed either printed text on the label, a symbol indicating the presence of GE ingredients or an electronic code that allowed shoppers to access more information through their smart phones.
Many of the major opponents of GE foods applauded passage of the labeling requirement, including the mainstream Organic Trade Association and the Whole Foods company. But the more strident anti-GMO critics complained that the labels weren’t clear (i.e. dramatic/scary) enough and didn’t provide real choice. Over the next two years, they fought every decision the FDA and USDA made as those agencies develop detailed rules for the labels. But having won the main battle on which they had focused, many opponents of GE food now gradually edged back from their blanket rejection of the entire idea of agricultural biotechnology. They had claimed they just wanted consumers to have a choice, and now that consumers had that choice, it was harder for GE opponents to credibly find other ways to try and kill the whole technology, which their demand for labeling had really just been a cover for all along.
They had made their stand on the battleground of labeling, and won, but with the passage of the labeling requirement they now began to lose the war.
There were several reasons for this. First, while the labeling fight had been coming to a head, more and more reputable scientific evidence confirmed that GMOs didn’t pose the risks that opponents claimed. As the evidence grew ever stronger, the news media increasingly covered the fight over GMOs as they had come to report on the issues of climate change and childhood vaccines; these were battles about values and politics, in which the basic science had been resolved and one side just didn’t want to accept what the evidence clearly indicated. GMO opponents were increasingly depicted negatively, as fearmongering science deniers.
The labeling law also weakened the opposition by bringing an important aspect of the science of genetically altering food into clearer focus. The government had to choose which among a burgeoning array of genetic engineering techniques even qualified for labeling under the new law. That helped dramatically increase awareness that the science of bioengineering food had grown much more complex. What had started 30 years earlier as a process of bringing a beneficial trait from one species into another—the transgenic approach of using “foreign genes” to create what opponents called Frankenfoods—now also included techniques like CRISPR-Cas9 that allowed scientists to turn up or down the traits already coded for in the natural genome of the plant or animal, or to transplant the genes that expressed a favorable trait in one plant or animal into the genomes of plants or animals in the same species.
The science had become more sophisticated, able to create hybrids the way they’d been created for thousands of years, mimicking what happened in nature rather than creating seemingly new chimeras. That made the whole process behind GMOs far less troubling, psychologically, to many people. The central fear had always been that GE foods were unnatural. Research in the psychology of risk perception had found that people are generally more worried about human-made risks than those which are natural. Putting a gene from a Brazil nut into a soybean or utilizing bacteria genes to create new foods was not natural. But enhancing or silencing the expression of a trait already in the soybean, or transplanting a gene that expressed a favorable trait from one soybean into seeds of the same species, was just doing in a lab what nature can do. In the debate about which technologies should be covered by the labeling law, the public learned that the technology was no longer as UNnatural as opponents claimed.
And many GE foods produced without transgenics were coming to market. Governments in several countries, even precautionary Canada, approved as safe various genetically modified foods that had been under review for years, from apples to potatoes to mushrooms. Many of these products offered a wide range of benefits, and not just to farmers or food companies, but direct benefits to consumers; lower prices, reduced spoilage, reduced allergenicity, improved animal welfare, and sometimes improved nutrition.
The third impact of labeling that weakened opponents’ efforts to resist the entire technology came from the labels themselves; not specifically from what they said or showed, but just by their proliferating presence. Surveys taken to see how people reacted to the labels confirmed what earlier research had suggested, that most consumers don’t read labels, and that many who do assume that if something is on a food label, it must have been approved as safe. A sizeable minority of shoppers did initially wonder whether the labels suggested some problem or health concern about GE foods, but as with public attitudes about the issue prior to the labels, that concern was shallow. Sales of most labeled products stayed the same. The fear of GMOs that opponents had created and banked on to scare consumes away when the labels showed up ended up taking only a small bite out of sales of a narrow range of products sold in a minority of stores and markets.
And even that hit was temporary, because as the labels proliferated and appeared on thousands of popular products, the presence of the label quickly became so familiar that it merely took its place among the “all-natural” and “organic” and the “non-GMO” labels cluttering store shelves across America. For many of the products whose sales did fall, that drop was short-lived.
These consumer reactions were consistent with the psychology of risk perception. Now people had choice, and the perception of risk is such that when we have choice, concern about any risk associated with that choice goes down. Also, the labels quickly became familiar, and psychologists have found that while a new potential threat is worrying, once we have lived with that risk for a while with no widespread or obvious negative effects, what felt scary at first feels less so. Just after the labels hit the shelves, a small percentage of shoppers logged onto websites or checked those electronic codes with their smart phones to find out more about what GMO ingredients were in their food. But within a few months the number of people doing so rapidly declined.
In short, the presence of the labels did not cause nearly as much concern, or lost sales, as opponents of GE foods had hoped and GE proponents had feared. The labels revealed that the fear activist opponents felt so deeply was never as deep in the psyche of the general public as the opponents had counted upon. Along with ever-growing scientific consensus that GMOs posed no human health risk, the media increasingly put opponents on the defensive as science deniers. With increasingly sophisticated and more ‘natural’ GE techniques producing a growing range of products with direct-to-consumer benefits, the release of the GMO labels that opponents had fought so hard for, and food companies had feared so deeply, actually began to contribute to a wider acceptance of the technology.
The controversy continued but it changed in several important ways. Some of the major opponents of GE foods who had helped lead (and fund) the battle for labeling quietly faded from the fight, ceding leadership to more adamant crusaders who were fighting a larger battle over about how technology, including large-scale commercial agriculture and its use of synthetic chemicals, had harmed human and environmental health. The fight against GE foods was just one battleground in that much larger and ongoing war.
But by the time Felicia and Arthur sat down to dinner that August evening in 2020 with Phyllis and Latrell, the GMO battle had died down significantly. The labels had been out for many months now. People were used to seeing them, and were mostly ignoring them. New GE foods were coming to market, including not only crops used as ingredients in other products but whole foods—fish and meat and fruits and vegetables—that people ate directly. There were fewer battles in legislatures, fewer controversial statewide referenda questions. The social media pages of GMO opponents still warned about the dangers of GE foods, but there were fewer stories in the general media about the supposed risks of GMOs and more about the new products being developed.
Fears about GE foods were no longer as frequently on the public’s plate. Increasingly, such foods were on actual dinner plates, including the meal the two couples enjoyed that night. Those foods had all been labeled, but no one at the dinner party had cared about what the labels on the food had said, nor about the process by which those foods had been produced. They just wanted food that was delicious, affordable, fresh and healthy, and thanks in part to developments during 2016, the foursome at dinner were like most of the public—fully comfortable that genetically engineered foods met all those criteria.
David Ropeik is an Instructor in the Environmental Studies Program at the Harvard Extension School. He is an author of two books and dozens of academic and popular articles on the psychology of risk perception. He is a consultant in risk communication and has advised dozens of academic, non-profit, professional, govern- mental and business organizations on a wide range of issues, including agricultural biotechnology. He worked previously as a broadcast journalist focusing on environmental issues, winning two DuPont Columbia Awards, several regional EMMY awards, and helped found the Society of Environmental Journalists.
The Genetic Literacy Project is a 501(c)(3) non profit dedicated to helping the public, journalists, policy makers and scientists better communicate the advances and ethical and technological challenges ushered in by the biotechnology and genetics revolution, addressing both human genetics and food and farming. We are one of two websites overseen by the Science Literacy Project; our sister site, the Epigenetics Literacy Project, addresses the challenges surrounding emerging data-rich technologies.