A recently published study in Nature Human Behavior has found that those who most strongly oppose GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- tend to be those who know the least about them.
The study was based on the survey responses of 2,500 randomly selected adults in Germany, France, and the U.S. The survey sought to measure attitudes toward and understanding of GMOs. To this end, participants were asked to score their opposition to GMOs on a seven-point scale and to rate their own knowledge of GMOs before answering a few true-or-false questions about the technology. The study found that not only did people who were extremely opposed to GMOs know the least about the science behind them, but they also believed they knew the most.
“What we found is that as the extremity of opposition increased, objective knowledge went down, but self-assessed knowledge went up,” lead author, Philip M. Fernbach, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Colorado, tells the Guardian.
In a press release, Fernbach says the result is “perverse” but “consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism."
"Extreme views often stem from people feeling they understand complex topics better than they do."
Statements presented to study participants included: “Ordinary tomatoes do not have genes, whereas genetically modified tomatoes do” (false), “the oxygen we breathe comes from plants” (true). “The cloning of living things produces genetically identical copies” (true), “It is not possible to transfer animal genes into plants” (false).
Fernbach believes that these findings will help the field of science and policy communications evolve.
"Our findings suggest that changing peoples' minds first requires them to appreciate what they don't know," said study co-author Nicholas Light, a Leeds School of Business Ph.D. candidate. "Without this first step, educational interventions might not work very well to bring people in line with the scientific consensus."
Most scientists agree that the mere fact that a food is genetically modified does not make it dangerous.
In 2013, the American Association for the Advancement of Science said the science proving the safety of GMO technology was “quite clear,” and in 2016, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) said there is “no substantial evidence of a difference in risks to human health between current commercially available genetically engineered crops and conventionally bred crops.”
Opposition to GMOs founded in science is generally tied, not to the safety of the technology itself, but rather to the way in which it is used. GMO technology is widely used by large agrichemical giants such as Monsanto and Bayer, who use the technology to produce genetically modified seeds that are resistant to herbicides, like glyphosate, leading to more intense applications of the chemicals that have been linked to numerous health and environmental issues. Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, was identified by the World Health Organization as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.
GMO opponents also point to the technology as limiting biodiversity.
"The real flawed science is that the Food and Drug Administration is not rigorously testing genetically modified food," Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director for the anti-GMO Organic Consumers Association, tells NPR.
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