Why Do People Fear G.M.O.’s?

(Photo: Alexis Baden-Mayer)

(Photo: Alexis Baden-Mayer)

Genetically modified food (or G.M.O.’s) continue to provoke heated debates about safety and labeling, even though scientific evidence indicates they’re safe.  Why?  A new article in Cosmos by David Ropeik explores the psychology behind people’s G.M.O. fears. Here is Ropeik on why man-made risks “feel” scarier than natural risks.

Beyond those heuristics, several specific emotional characteristics also make G.M.O.’s feel scary. These “fear factors” have been identified in pioneering research in risk perception by Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon, Baruch Fischhoff at Carnegie Mellon University, and others. You can hear them pop up as the young man explains his fears. “It’s just not natural to take the gene from one species and put it in another. It’s just not natural!”

Indeed, taking a gene from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis – Bt) that produces a natural pesticide and injecting that gene into the DNA of a soy plant, is hardly Mother Nature’s way of hybridising plants. But does that have anything to do with whether it’s actually risky? No. Scientifically, whether something is a risk depends on whether it is physically hazardous, in what ways and at what dose, and whether we’re exposed, at what age and how often. A radioactive particle in your lungs can cause cancer whether the particle came from the natural breakdown of uranium in the soil, which produces natural radon gas, or from a nuclear power plant accident. But risk perception research has found that natural risks don’t feel as scary as the the equivalent man-made risks. 


Funny thing is that organic farmers can spray BT as a "natural" pesticide on their crops. So the GMO critics should hardly be "shocked, shocked" about Bacillus thuringiensis when it is used in all types of farming.


I don't "fear" GMOs, but I know that when I'm in Europe, I can eat bread and drink beer with no problems. When I'm stateside, the wheat here gives me eczema, psoriasis on my back and arthritis symptoms in my foot, not to mention the unpleasant digestive symptoms. The GMO wheat here seems to have a higher gluten content, which is what sets these things off for me. Sadly, I'm reduced to drinking gluten-free beer (Omission), which barely makes life livable.


Jason, interesting change in symptoms stateside, but it's not due to GMO wheat: it's not grown commercially in the U.S. Maybe it's your choice of beers?


GMOs are enginereed to be tolerant of specific chemicals that kill weeds, pests and fungus. Those chemicals are a risk to our health.

Those chemicals kill bees that we need to grow food... this poses a risk to our environment and future food supply, also indirectly putting our health at risk.

These chemicals poison our water supply.

GMOs and their chemical counterparts promote enormous monocultures which ruin our soil and lead to less species diversification.

These gigantic monoculture farms are also far away from most consumers and lead to long distance transportation... powered by fossil fuels.

GMOs put the control of seed in the hands of corporations. Average people can plant and nourish normal seeds into plants... you cant do that with GMOs without special chemicals purchased by those same companies. Their excessive control over our food puts our food supply at risk.

These are just physical/health risks... there are many financial and political consequences as well.

Buy organic. Buy local. Start a vegetable garden.



This is, if not just plain wrong, so woefully incomplete (and biased!) as to be "not even wrong". GMOs are, or can be, a LOT more than just engineered to resist particular pesticides. (Many of which, like RoundUp(tm) are over-used by homeowners & gardeners.) They can, like golden rice, be engineered to supply necessary nutrients that aren't ordinarily available in a poverty-level diet. Or they can be modified to resist spoilage: wouldn't it be nice to be able to buy ripe peaches that didn't spoil before you got them home?

Nor do GMOs put control in the hands of corporations. If you don't want to grow GMO plants, you certainly don't have to buy that particular kind of seed. Nor are corporations the only source of GMOs: the above-mentioned golden rice was developed by European university researchers as a purely humanitarian project.


It is impossible to prove something is safe. You can only prove something is not safe.

I do not think anyone argues about banning GMOs. Labeling is a reasonable requirement. I really see no downside in full disclosure in our Information Age.

There is another issue with GMOs: food supply safety. If there is a monopoly on seeds and the seeds that farmers actually have on hands cannot reproduce - this is kind of scary. Much of worlds food depends on ability of a few companies to supply correct manufactured seeds to the whole world. Anything going wrong with this process in either safety of the food produced or even in ability to produce any food would have unaginable consiquences for the humans.