gmo foods
June 12, 2014

Potato Famine Story Fails To Boost Support For GMOs

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Genetically-modified crops (GMOs) might eventually be able to prevent blight or prevent starvation on a massive scale, but the prospect of these disasters isn’t enough to convince someone who is strongly against their use, according to a new study in the journal Appetite.

Study researchers found when grocery shoppers read the story of the 1850s Irish Potato famine online, the tale did nothing to boost their support for GMOs.

"If you think genetically modified crops are dangerous ‘frankenfoods’ and/or that crop disease is best controlled with chemicals – if you suspect federal regulators care more about Big Ag’s interests than your family’s, thus the whole game is rigged – plaintive tales of historical famines won’t change your mind about genetic modification for disease resistance," said study author Katherine A. McComas, a science communications professor at Cornell University.

In the study, which included almost 860 shoppers, researchers began by assessing their subjects’ knowledge of GMOs. Then participants were asked to self-assess their own knowledge.

Half of the participants were told to read about the potato famine and how the fungus Phytophthora infestans could devastate crops today. The other half were asked to think about plant disease in a general sense.

"Stories of the Irish Potato Famine were no more likely to boost support for disease-resistant GM crops than were our generic crop-disease descriptions," McComas said. "Preconceived views about risks and benefits of agricultural genetic engineering – and perceptions about the fairness and legitimacy of the decision-making process – these things matter most."

Researchers assessed the influence of perceptions of fairness and legitimacy by asking participants to agree or disagree with statements like, "Decision-makers try hard to understand the views of people like me" and "Decision-makers have a right to increase the use of biotechnology in agriculture."

The study team said their analysis provides a window into how people think about the legitimacy and benefits of GMOs.

"While support (for disease-resistant GM crops) may be a function of views about risks and benefits, legitimacy perceptions come from views about decision-making processes," they wrote.

In March, the advocacy group GMO Answers and the Council for Biotechnology Information released the results of a survey on the top ten questions people have about genetically-modified foods. Top questions included: finding out "if GMOs cause cancer," "if GMOs are causing an increase in allergies" and "if big companies are forcing farmers to grow GMOs."

"A national dialogue is taking place about GMOs and it’s important for us to listen to the questions consumers are asking so we can provide the information to help address their concerns," said Cathleen Enright, a spokesperson for GMO Answers. "We are committed to transparency about how our food is grown, including an open discussion about GMOs. This is why we asked independent, third-party experts to answer these questions publicly. Our goal is to ensure consumers have the information they need to make up their own minds about GMOs."

On its official website, GMO Answers provides answers to questions on more than 500 questions about GMOs, food and agriculture.