A war of perceptions on GMOs

Science communication. Black and white field crop
Anti-GM demonstrators. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuters
Anti-GMO demonstrators. Photograph: Paul Hackett/Reuter

Genetically modified organisms (or GMOs) are at the centre of heated debate as to the potential effects on health and environment.

In the “Seeds of Contention” (by Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Ebbe Schiøler), the authors bring the issue to a point by calling it a war of perceptions. Anti-GMO groups are generally concerned that GMOs might bring lasting destruction to the environment and human health as well as negatively affecting the well being of poor people. Pro-GMO groups says that GMOs have the potential to alleviate hunger and poverty while improving the quality of the environment.

GMO controversies seem to be, largely, a by product of poor science communication. As a result, over-simplified and contentious statements have been able to gain currency while the real issue of GMOs being a part of the solution for world hunger goes largely ignored. The silent stakeholders (populations in developing countries who need the solution) are rarely heard from.

Monarch butterflies (or, how headlines affect support for GMOs)

In 1999, a study found that pollen from GMO Bt maize could harm monarch butterflies. Subsequently, there was widespread reporting on GMO crops decimating the population of monarch butterflies.

Later that year, when several groups studied the phenomenon, a risk assessment concluded that the risk posed by the maize to monarch butterflies was negligible. This was confirmed by a 2002 report and in a 2007 review.

The retraction was never published and today you can still read news stories about GMO crops eliminating monarch butterfly populations even though independent researchers and the US Department of Agriculture suggest that the truth is a little more complicated than that.

The case of the monarch butterflies is typical of the hype around GMOs. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown has created hype and resistance.

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