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Adamant. An anti-GMO protest in the European Parliament in 2010.

Adamant. An anti-GMO protest in the European Parliament in 2010.

LuiseLimoncina, Wikimedia Commons

Q&A: Why Are We Still Shouting About GMOs?

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Why is it so hard for scientists and the public to agree about the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture? Proponents argue that tweaking a crop’s DNA can increase nutritional value, pest resistance, or yield to help feed the world’s growing population. But many remain vehemently opposed to the technology. Some fear that big businesses like Monsanto will monopolize the agricultural industry by claiming intellectual property rights over GM crops. Others aren’t convinced that GMOs are safe to eat.

Philosopher of science Daniel Hicks of Western University in London, Canada, has studied how sociopolitical and ethical concerns—for example, fears about abuse of intellectual property rights—get mixed up with the technical questions about food safety in the GMO debate. His current research seeks to document how people on either side of the controversy collect and use evidence about the claim that GMOs increase crop yields. He presented a poster titled “Why is the GMO debate so intractable?” here at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science. Hicks sat down with Science to answer a few questions about the GMO debate. 

Q: How are some philosophers of science explaining the GMO debate?

D.H.: A philosopher named Heather Douglas has a model that emphasizes what she calls inductive risk. Consider a claim like “GMOs are safe for humans to eat.” If you’re a proponent of GMOs, you might think it’s really important to develop and implement them to feed the world, so you might set a relatively undemanding threshold for statistical significance [in food safety studies.] But if you’re opposed to GMOs—if you’re really worried about the downstream consequences—you might set a more demanding threshold. And then if we have a body of evidence that’s somewhere in between these, that will be sufficient for the proponents, but opponents won’t be able to accept that claim. There won’t be enough evidence. But a limitation of the inductive risk model is that it doesn’t directly address sociopolitical and economic concerns.

Q: How have you tried to address those?

D.H.: My approach is to look carefully at sociopolitical and economic concerns and the ways in which they’re lost. One way is that they’re often misrepresented as health and safety concerns. Another way is that they’re dismissed. For example, proponents of GMOs will say that intellectual property isn’t really relevant to evaluating the technology, and so we should set these concerns aside and focus on the technology itself. And a third way is that these concerns will be acknowledged (proponents will say they’re concerned about intellectual property, for example), but then they just won’t respond to these things. They’ll go on to say, “But we have evidence that shows they’re safe, and we need GMOs to feed the world.” This isn’t really engaging the concerns that motivate a lot of opponents.

Q: Why do you think that happens?

D.H.: The thing about health and safety concerns is that we’ve figured out ways to measure them objectively, in ways where everyone can agree on the risks at hand. … But we don’t really have institutions for dealing with sociopolitical and economic concerns. Or to the extent that we do, they’re not really powerful. And so I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of scientists sort of see the squishiness or the fuzziness or the vagueness here and back away, and retreat to health and safety claims that are much more comfortable for them.

Q: How does this affect the GMO controversy?

D.H.: At the very least, I think that it means a lot of the concerns of opponents of GMOs don’t really get addressed. And if I’m concerned about something, and my concerns aren’t being addressed, I’m not going to go away. I’m not going to feel satisfied. I’m going to keep raising those concerns.

I should add that I think often even opponents of GMOs sort of mix up [different types of] concerns. They’ll go back and forth, sometimes raising health and safety concerns, sometimes raising concerns about the intellectual property rights and power of [agribusiness giant] Monsanto.

Q: Do you think the debate will become less “intractable?"

D.H.: I honestly don’t know. I don’t think there’s any sort of magic science communications algorithm that we can apply to improve the quality of the discussion. What I would emphasize to scientists and other science communicators is really keeping clear when are we talking about health and safety, when are we talking about other kinds of concerns. And when we’re talking about those other kinds of concerns, making sure we’re addressing them directly.

I’ve spoken to a few scientists about this, who are themselves worried about intellectual property. To these scientists, I would recommend, when you start up a conversation with an opponent of GMOs, start with that point of common ground. Neither of you is a big fan of the way a lot of new organisms are developed. So start with that point of common ground, and from there, you can build up goodwill to talk about stickier issues.

See more of our coverage from AAAS 2014.