Anti-GMO activism sows doubt about science

By Mark Lynas

November 27, 2018

A new opinion poll suggests that Russian trolls, aided by anti-GMO groups such as the Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association, have been strikingly successful in sowing doubt about science in the general population.

While experts around the world share an overwhelming consensus that foods produced from genetically modified crops are as safe as any other, the latest Pew Research Center polling data shows that an increasing share of the United States public disagrees.

Some 49 percent of US adults surveyed said that foods with GM ingredients were worse for one’s health, up from 39 percent just two years ago.

This 10 percent swing against the long-held scientific consensus on GMOs is disastrous news for the expert community, which has been attempting to improve its communications on the issue in response to misinformation produced by anti-GMO groups.

The situation is analogous to oil companies and climate deniers winning the war on climate change, where a similar worldwide scientific consensus is under constant attack from disinformation campaigners with a strong ideological agenda.

An oft-cited Pew Center poll published in 2015 found a bigger gap between the public and the experts on the GMO issue than on any other area of science controversy, including vaccines, climate and nuclear power. The latest data suggests that the situation is getting worse rather than better for the scientific community.

Over the past year evidence has emerged that Russian bots and trolls, as well as Vladimir Putin’s state-controlled media, have been making great efforts to spread anti-GMO memes among Western audiences in order to undermine public trust in science.

“The uptick in concern [about the supposed health effects of GMOs] has come primarily among those with low levels of science knowledge; there has been no shift in this belief among those with high levels of science knowledge,” according to Pew.

Interestingly, while anti-GMO beliefs are often portrayed as a tendency of the political Left, the Pew Center data does not support this conclusion, finding that “Democrats and Republicans hold broadly similar beliefs about potential health effects” of GM foods.

The data does however find a strong gender disparity in concern about GM foods, with 56 percent of women versus 43 percent of men saying that GM foods are worse for one’s health.

The 2016 and 2018 Pew Center surveys used the same wording for beliefs about GM foods, but did differ in the range of other questions asked. Pew warns therefore that “survey context differences could also be a factor in people’s responses to the two surveys.”

This will provide scant consolation to science communicators who have been aiming to combat widespread misinformation on the GMO issue. Clearly, turning the tide on anti-GMO fake news will be a tougher battle than they ever thought.