More field days; more voting on the acceptability of GM crops; the same story, but with a potential change: Have we swung back to being fearful of GM crops? If so, why?
By Jason Major, TechNyou
We are three camps when it comes to the acceptability of GM food, at least on the raw numbers. There are those firmly opposed; those who are OK with the technology; and a small bunch of fence sitters who say they don’t know enough or need more information to be more definitive. This has been a consistent finding over the years of the TechNyou outreach program and the two recent field day events were no different. Similar to previous outreach events with this poster, the visual graph (Figure 1) hides much of the real picture about how people judge the acceptability of GM crops. Although the polarisation is real and there are true fence sitters that vote in the middle for every crop, there is only one camp firmly cemented into their position and that is the opposed camp; other voting is generally more fluid.
Table 1. Number of votes for the acceptability of GM crop examples on TechNyou vote poster. Combined Karoonda and Warrigal Field days
Votes 0-1 = unacceptable; votes 4-5 = acceptable
|High fibre cereals||16||5||9||8||22|
Digging into the detail
Figure 1 reveals the ever-present polarisation surrounding GM foods with those firmly opposed to any GM food standing in defiance of those in the opposite camp. The polarisation is more obvious at Karoonda and Warrigal (see Figures 2 and 3 below). Those opposed generally have strong moral or values-based convictions behind their opposition to GM foods. In contrast, those who vote in the acceptable end are merely supportive in general and not necessarily for every crop, though values are obviously still a strong influence on how anyone votes. Having said that there is still a lot of unncertainty surrounding GM foods much of it based on an acknowledged lack of knowledge producing what could be considered a normal response to an uncertainty – avoidance. With the exception of those opposed to GM crops under any circumstances, most people’s level of acceptability is somewhat fluid depending on the GM crop and the respective issues attached to it. The number of people who vote unsure for everything is therefore small.
As usual for these events I noted, as much as possible, comments people made in discussion about their votes. I broke them down into the following, now familiar, themes:
Table 2. List of concerns about GM crops from people at Karoonda and Warrigal Field Days.
|Lack of trust||2|
|Concerns about focus on tech fix*||2|
|Unsure about non-GM food safety**||4|
|Concerned, but unable to articulate what those concerns are, usually expressed along the lines of, “it just seems wrong.”||5|
* Tech fix: refers to our apparent or real obsession with the idea that technology will solve all our problems. For example, there is no need to worry about climate chhange becasue we will invent a way to prevent the problem occurring
**Once I explained the basics of non-GM or conventional plant breeding (eg, embryo rescue or mutagenesis), the people thought they should be just as worried about these breeding techniques as we are about GM.
Table 3. The un- or less concerned reasoning for general acceptability of our GM crop examples
|Those positive toward GM technology||9|
|Saw reasons for developing example GM crops as problems worth solving||4|
|Trust in science and regulatory system||4|
The number of People that voted differently for each crop = 10
People that stated need for more information to help make a more definitive decision = 6
These people generally voted between 2 and 4, depending on the crop.
The rise of, “is it safe?”
Unnatural and anti-Monsanto still reign supreme as the top concerns. Surprisingly, though, there appears to be a resurgence in fears about the safety of GM foods. At these two events and in the recent Seymour Alternative Farm Fair there was considerable concern among the unacceptable and unsure voters about the safety of GM crops. Until this year, this fear appeared to be waning, though these studies are not specifically measuring or analysing this and so my observation on this is hardly definitive. Therefore I would place large error bars around this observation. If there is a rise in concern about safety, the interesting question is why? What is driving this resurgence? For that I don’t have an answer, but I have a couple of more outreach events in the next two months and I will try and ask some more probing questions to see if I can start to get an idea.
Unless it is in quote marks, the following are not exact voter comments, but accurate paraphrasing of what they said in discussion after the vote: You will notice that concerns about safety and unnatural are usually linked.
1.Nature has always been able to do it better. We should only be growing cultivars that are bred by natural cross breeding. (Biodynamic blueberry farmer)
2. We should leave anything this unnatural alone. In reference to the GM salmon that is being assessed by the US Food and Drug Authority (FDA) at the moment, he said, how do we know that eating this salmon is not going to lead to humans growing to 10 feet tall and overweight.
3. Wife: GM is bad. It is unnatural. I only buy biodynamic food and I grow my own veges.
Husband: I heard there is this ingredient in GM food that is bad.
4. GM food is unhealthy. (He implied it was linked to the increase in asthma.)
5. Can it hurt us? They told us asbestos was safe. “It cheats nature.”
6. The comments about the safety are reflected in the above comments, but the following examples drive home this fear:
Anti-Monsanto can be translated into a beef with monopolisation and corporate control of our food supply. An entity that strips us of the power to control what we eat – a commodity (food) that we have strong cultural bonds with.
1. It’s not natural and so long as Monsanto are involved I won’t have a bar of it. I only want food that hasn’t been tampered with and if we can’t have something that God hasn’t put here then I’m not sure what we can do. (This voter did note that he would consider a GM crop that would be given away free or any profit went back to the community.)
2. I have extreme concerns about the use of the technology to control and monopolise the food supply and exploit farmers, especially in developing nations.
Those that said they were positive toward GM technology did not necessarily vote5 for all. Likewise many of those who voted 5 for some crops often had some level of concern or uncertainty about GM, largely because they felt they didn’t know enough; with some concerns relating to anti-Monsantism. Depending on the crop, however, this concern became acceptable if they thought the GM crop could in some way help solve the problem associated with the need introduce the specific trait.
For example, one person’s comments included a level of uncertainty about the technology stating, I just don’t know enough…what are the long-term effects of these crops? He voted 4-5 for all crops. His partner had similar concerns, but voted 2-3 for all crops. This is highly reflective of different values influencing how a person votes. Different values include how we define and accept risk.
Many couldn’t articulate their concerns or what information they would like to know that would help them make a more definitive decision.
The following comments are reflective of those strongly for the technology, though when pushed to consider whether technology was the sole answer and whether many of these problems were social and could be equally or even more effectively solved by social means, they conceded this point and often rephrased their position to “appropriate use of technology”:
1. Technology advancement is good and should be used where appropriate.
2. Technology can be useful
3. I have issues with how patents are used with this technology, but I see the problems as important to solve and if GM can do it then why not.
4. I have no issue with the technology. Technology can play an important role in solving new problems. We need to adapt and be progressive.
Separate vote data for Warrigal and Karoonda
Note: Warrigal, in south-east Victoria is made up of dairy and beef farmers, plus a lot of small acreage and hobby farmers. Some of the latter identified themselves as organic or biodynamic farmers. Karoonda, about 2 hours north-east of Adelaide (South Australia) is mostly broad acre cereal cropping and sheep. Nobody here specifically told me they were an organic farmer.
Figure 2. Warrigal Farm World votes for how acceptable are each GM crop on the outreach voting poster
Figure 3. Karoonda Farm Fair votes for how acceptable are each GM crop on the outreach voting poster
It may still be anecdote, but there are strong trends emerging that describe the values driving how people judge the acceptability of GM crops. In general terms, the numbers that find the GM crops we use acceptable have always been and remain greater than those who find them unacceptable. The values that make these GM crops (and I suspect most, if not all, GM crops anywhere) are consistent and match those in the academic literature: unnatural, anti-Monsanto, and safety fears.
All the normal caveats as described in previous blogs about similar events apply to this data and its analysis
Among the alpacas and organic composts we posed a question to people on the acceptability of GM crops. The polarized position on GM foods hasn’t changed over the years, but the surprise was that some of those who identified themselves as organic farmers found our examples of GM crops acceptable.
It was hot, dusty and stormy at the Seymour Alternative Farm Fair, a small town about an hour north of Melbourne. The target audience for this event was the small and alternative farmer, hence the large number of organic and agro-ecological-based exhibitors. Consequently, of the people we chatted to, a greater proportion than normal identified themselves as organic/biodynamic farmers or at least people associated with the industry. Many more could be described as small, self-sufficient block owners. That is, people who by their description strived for some level of self-sufficiency and attempted to do so in the most “natural” or environment-friendly way possible. How, or if, the event’s skewed demographic affected the data is hard to know, but I suspect it did.
Have your say
TechNyou took along its voting poster that asks people to vote on the acceptability of four different GM crops that are part of research programs at the Universities of Melbourne and Adelaide. Compared to other events we have used this poster the voter numbers were low, but there was still plenty of stimulating and often vigorous discussions. Comments from some of the discussions are below.
GM crop examples
The following were the GM crops examples used on the vote poster.
- Drought-tolerant wheat
- Nitrogen-use efficient cereals (ie cereals that grow and yield the same but require a lot less nitrogen fertilizer to do so)
- Biofuel crops – development of crops from which we can efficiently and economically extract biofuel, but don’t compete with food.
- Cereals (rice and wheat) that have high levels of the soluble fibre Beta glucan – a fibre important for gut health
Table 1. Public vote on how acceptable it is to use transgenic (GM) technology to generate the following crops. 0-1 = unacceptable; 2-3 = unsure; 4-5 = totally acceptable
|Wheat that uses less nitrogen|
|Crop used for biofuel|
|Cereals with higher dietary fibre|
Figure 1. Vote tally
Compared to previous events where we have used this poster, there is a definite increase in the numbers of people that find GM crops in any form unacceptable, however, the majority of people generally find these crops acceptable. See data on previous uses of the vote poster here
The following points of interest add some context to these votes:
Although the votes appear polarized, and to a large extent they are, a significant proportion of people still voted differently for each crop – see Table 2 below. That is, they voted on the worth of the application rather than the acceptability of the transgenic technology. This reflects previous engagement activities on this topic and reflects that although the graph suggests a polarized debate the reality is more complex. What it indicates is that this is not a pro-anti, or that or GM is good or bad. A significant proportion of people are judging how and where that technology (GM crop) is being used and not whether it is GM or not. They are asking how will it benefit me and society, what are the societal and scientific risks, can we manage these risks in an acceptable way? Regardless of whether they are ill- or well-informed they are being guided by their values and making a call.
There were a lot more people that identified themselves as organic/biodynamic farmers or associated with the organics industry than at other field days we have attended. This is to be expected as the event was targeted as small and alternative farms. But most surprising was the number of these people in this category that voted toward the acceptable end for some or all of the GM crop examples we presented. In contrast there were a lot of people who voted toward the unacceptable end who said they they had no issues or concerns about transgenics or GM crops per se, but thought there might have been betters ways to solves the plant breeding problems presented
At least six people specifically stated after chatting with us they were now confused, that this issue was more complex than they thought and that we had made them think. If all we achieved was the latter then we did our job. I am reasonably confident that we achieved a similar mental state with a good proportion of the other people we engaged with based on the discussion and questions that were asked, but that is inference only.
In contrast to the last 3-4 years, a large number of people said they were concerned about the human health implications of GM foods. This has generally declined as an issue, but was significant for many people at this event.
A good majority of those opposed to GM crops outright were also opposed to other modern breeding technologies such as mutagenesis, embryo rescue and hybridization. When asked if they would change their vote if I simply removed the word GM from the question and replaced it with modern plant breeding technologies, they nearly always said no. This reflects their values that all things must be natural and that these modern breeding technologies are unnatural and unnecessary, or at least that we are tinkering with nature in ways that might have unforeseen consequences.
Of the people who generally approved of the technology and how it is used, if they were going to find a crop unacceptable it was the cereals with high fibre. Their issue with this in nearly all circumstances was that we would be better off getting people to eat a diet that contained more wholegrains. A number of people also had issue with biofuels though it was for various reasons. For example, one man said that biofuels would increase our dependence on fuels and a transport system that was inherently flawed.
Normally we don’t have any problem getting people to vote. At this event there was genuine reluctance among a lot of people and they either kept walking after a short chat or voted only after some encouragement.
We tried to limit our influence on people’s vote as much as possible by getting them to vote with only a minimal but standard introduction to the brief description of the crop and technology. We asked people if they knew what was meant by a GM food and had some concept of the technology behind it – effectively all voters did. If they didn’t they were given the following explanation: Transgenics (GM technology) involves taking from one species one or more genes with particular traits or characteristics we are interested, and inserting it (them) into the genome of our crop plant so that it now has that particular trait. Transgenics also involves the ability to control the regulation of existing genes in a plant: we can switch them on, off or make them work more or less efficiently. The only group this explanation was required for was a handful of high school student, which because of their low numbers (11) are not included in the above voting data. We always separate out the students from the general population because high school students vote noticeably different to adults.
We have learnt that we need to explain briefly what nitrogen was and that it is an essential nutrient for plant and used as a fertiliser, though at a farm field day this explanation proved unnecessary. The only other clarification we made was with biofuel crops. People were told the aim of this research was to develop crops that did not compete with food. Such crops must be able to grow on non-arable land or where the waste or crop trash could be used for fuel, for example sawdust from forestry practices or straw and stubble left after harvest.
Who were our voters?
This is hard to determine as we generally didn’t ask. We usually found out people’s occupation because it came up in conversation. But here is the breakdown of what we found. The numbers are low, so it is hardly definitive.
Small/hobby farmer 3
Ag research or similar: 2
High school students: 11 (known because we could count their votes)
Others (including plumber, builder): 3
After each vote we asked people why they voted the way they did to try and get a handle on what is influencing their decision. For example we were interested in why a person might have voted 0 for all or 5 for all: what was so terrible or great about the technology or its uses? If a person voted differently for some crops, why and what is the difference between one crop and the others? If possible we dug a bit deeper and got them to think about their own responses. For example, for those that were worried about affects on human health we would ask how would they define safe and how safe must a crop be before eating it? Do they think crops bred via other breeding technologies, such as mutagenesis and embryo rescue are any safer? At the other end of the scale, those who were largely accepting of the technology or uses, which was generally along the lines of, I have no problems with the technology and if it can help solve these plant breeding problems then we should use it, we might ask them if there were more effective or socially responsible ways of solving the problems, for example consideration toward reducing food wastage, a bigger effort to promote a diet with more wholegrains, more research into agro-ecological approaches that would reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer in the first place…and so on.
What we didn’t find out was precisely why some organics farmers, despite the organic movement having zero tolerance for anything GM, they thought these GM crops were, to varying degrees, acceptable? Do they disagree with the policy? DO they have different motives for being organics than what I perceive them to be. I do know my cousin seriously thought about converting his dairy farm to an organic, though it had nothing to do with any idealistic belief in the organic movement. He simply thought it might boost his bottom line. Did these guys have similar motives? I will never know.
I am no social scientist, but I have attempted to group voters based on their specific comments – see Table 2. A selection of actual comments is below that reflects these groups and adds further context. In many instances the numbers for some categories could have been larger, but again it would have been inference on our part. The numbers here reflect specific references made in conversation after the voting. We did not make notes for every voter. Some voter’s comments meant they were recorded in more than one group.
Table 2. Grouping of voters
|Group||No. of voters|
|Those totally against Monsanto – Monsanto specifically mentioned||5|
|A general lack of trust with big corporations, science, policy makers and the regulation||3|
|Issues with GM and all modern plant breeding technologies||4|
|Claim that GM is unnatural||6|
|Concern about environment issue re: GM||1|
|Concern about GM causing human health issues||6|
|Concern about unknown long-term effects of GM crops||2|
|No real issues with GM technology, but issues with some of ways it might be used||3|
|Generally positive toward the uses of technology and no issues with GM technology||5|
|Positive toward GM technology overall||7|
|Positive generally toward uses but issues with technology – ie willing to accept some GM foods despite concerns||4|
|Need more info to make more informed decision||3|
|Number of people who voted differently for each crop (that we recorded anyway – it was no doubt higher)||20|
These are a few of the paraphrased comments or qualitative notes we selectively made from discussion with the voters. Notes were made based on time and interest. That is, sometimes we were busy at the stand and didn’t get time to make a note. Other times people just voted and walked away or didn’t have anything to say worthy of noting down – yes all so objective. Comments in quotes are not word for word quotes, but reasonably accurate as they were the few I managed to write down on the spot.
Organic beef farmer: Voted 4 for all four crops. Didn’t vote 5 because, as he said, there is a small uncertainty about the technology that had been “planted in my mind” from the media and other sources.
Father with young family: Voted 5 for all except increased fibre in cereals. They are all good problems to solve. I have no issue with the technology, but getting people to eat a better diet is a better solution than increasing the fibre content in cereals. [a point that was reflected by a number of people]
Male – 40s, mechanic: Voted between 4 and 5 for all. I have concerns, but the potential benefits make any risk acceptable. He said he needed more information about the science, but “if the regulators give it the tick it is fine by me.”
Male 50s: Voted 2-3 for all except he gave biofuel a 4. His comment: “You can trick nature, but you can never fool it.” This referred to agriculture as a whole fighting a battle that it will eventually lose against nature. His issue was not with transgenic technology but all modern crop breeding technologies and the agricultural system as a whole, but he conceded we can’t go back. He was one that had the words GM been removed from the question, his vote would have been the same.
Young couple: Found biofuels and nitrogen-efficient crops mostly acceptable. Had issues with drought tolerant crops because they thought that lead to crops being grown in environmentally sensitive areas and where crops shouldn’t be grown. They had big concerns about Monsanto and its corporate power.
Male: Voted between 1 and 3. Reason – Complete lack of trust toward Monsanto and similar companies and in politicians to make appropriate policy.
Female, 30s: Voted 0 for all. I only grow and eat foods from heritage seeds. We are tinkering with nature in ways we shouldn’t. [Again, a common value for voters]
Female, retired: Voted 0 for all. She was concerned about GM crops causing allergies and other health risks.
Retired couple: voted 4.5 for drought-tolerance and nitrogen-efficiency, and voted 3 for others. They had concerns about the health risks and needed more facts, but generally thought potential benefits overrode their concerns.
Retired couple: voted between 0 and 2 for all. “We need to rely on what God created; adapt to what God created for us.” They stated that GM or transgenics was not the specific issue here; “any technology is mucking around with nature,” they said.
Young father: voted 2.5 for all except voted 4 for biofuel. He was unsure about the concept of modifying food. There was enough uncertainty from what he had read in the media to make him wary. He expressed similar concerns about mutagenesis, embryo rescue and other modern plant breeding technologies.
Female: Voted 0 for all. Her reasons included no idea of long-term effects of GM crops; lack of testing; no independent research and too many papers showing ill-effects to animals. And what about all the allergies? Mutagenesis and other modern plant breeding technologies should also be banned. Food bred by any of these methods should be labeled.
Middle aged couple, ex-farmers: Vote not recorded. They think the transgenic technology is “great”, but have issues with how it is used, especially with the domination of Monsanto.
Female, 30s: Voted between 0 and 1 for all except biofuel. She had no issue with transgenic technologies, but thought there was better ways of solving these particular plant breeding problems, for example “aren’t there better ways of overcoming drought than trying to breed a drought-tolerant crop; and we should eat a better diet instead of producing a high-fibre cereal. I haven’t really thought about the issue of using GM to solve this, but you have made me think.”
Female, age?: Voted 0 for all. Reasons given were that all food should be natural. She grew her food biodynamically, using heritage seeds. She had issues also with the monopolization of food and everything else associated with modern agriculture.
Male, farmer: Voted between 4 and 5 for all. This is after stating he was dead against GM crops, but he thought their use in the situations presented here was a good idea. When we discussed mutagenesis, he was unsure if that was a good idea.
As mentioned we did try and standardize how we introduced people to the voting board, but there were four of us talking to people at the vote board and facilitating the discussion after it. There were bound to be slight inconsistencies to this introduction which might have influenced the vote, and there were definite differences to the way we facilitated the discussion despite all best efforts. Suffice to say, there are large error bars attached to this data.
Nearly all people said they understood what GM crops were and had a basic understanding of transgenic technology. We do not know the extent or quality of this understanding. Based on previous experience there are lots of misconceptions about transgenics.
Who was our audience? We didn’t survey our voters about this, so data is sparse and anecdotal only.
You will notice the numbers of votes don’t tally up evenly. This is for a few reasons. A small number of people didn’t realize they had to vote four times – ie a vote for each crop. Some people got caught up in conversation with people around them and simply didn’t realise they hadn’t voted for all crops.
One of the vote boards – Sat, I think
By Jason Major
Although it still remains to be seen how much difference second and third gen biofuels can make, research continues with some interesting advances and ideas.
New antibiotic and anti-cancer chemicals may one day be synthesised following discovery of the three genes that provide soldier beetles with their potent predator defence system.
By engineering the metabolic process of a specific bacterium, scientists have boosted its ability to produce the highly efficient fuel, butanol.
The first successful neural stem cell transplant into the brains of four boys with Pelizaeus-Merzbacher disease has been performed
Genetically modified mosquitoes released in the Cayman Islands reduced the population of dengue-carrying mosquitoes by 80 per cent.
TechNyou has followed this research and reported on it at various stages. See links to stories below. There is a link to the Nature Biotechnology paper on the SciDevNet site
Can we grow wings; grow our own organs? Do deaf people have silent dreams…and how do you make the best paper airplane? These questions are not as crazy or sci-fi as they may seem and are just a few of the discussion topics from the latest round of I’m a scientist, get me outa here.
The latest I’m a scientist, is over with the winners basking in glory. Congratulation to Simon O’Toole (Boron Zone); Hannah Brown (Organs Zone); and Natasha Langley (Diseases Zone).
What did they chat about?
You name it really. There were way too many insightful questions and interesting discussions to list here. You can see them all, however, on the I’m a scientist website
But I have selected some of the juicier questions students asked and a few lines from some of the answers.
Do you think that we should be working towards an invention to make us live forever? And what impacts do you think the effects of living forever will do to the human race?
Matthew : I don’t know. When our cells replicate, there is a slow accumulation of errors, and the ends of the chromosomes get shorter…However there is some enzyme that stops this from happening that is used by cancer cells. So maybe this could be utilised for good rather than evil. But I don’t think I would like to live forever!
Heather : I hope not! I think I would get bored eventually.
Steve : We’d have to revisit our feelings on difficult moral issues like suicide / euthanasia – if we could only die by choosing to die, then we’d have to talk about whether that was acceptable now. There would be thousands of effects on society, most of which are difficult or impossible to predict. It’s fun to try, though; can you think of any others?
Steven: I found a great resource that helps answer this question. The short version of what it says is ‘not really’. Some of the problems they mention are:
1). We don’t know enough about how bird wings come from the bird’s genes to pick out which ones are responsible in the bird.
2). Even if we could, we don’t yet have the know-how to monkey with human genes that way…
Here’s an analogy: think of a car and an airplane. If you tried to make the car fly by cutting the wings off the airplane (copying the bird genes) and sticking them straight on the car (into the human genome), you’d end up with an overbalanced mess of a car that wouldn’t get two inches off the ground. .. So for the foreseeable future, I’m afraid that you’ll just have to fly in an airplane like the rest of us.
Natasha: I like your question…hehehehee, I think we could in the future. But unless we dramatically change our body shape or grow MASSIVE wings, I don’t think they would be functional. Birds have very light bodies and bones as well to make them extra light…So technically, yes we could combine genetics and make a human with wings. But ethically, I don’t think the government would ever allow scientists to try it out!
TechNyou – BTW when I ask students what they would like to change about themselves I nearly alway get someoen whosays they want wings
Is it possible to splice animal DNA so that we could use the animals as super beings and destroy our foes?
Carina: Sure. But then again, our biggest foe is ourselves. So maybe that’s not such a great idea.
Yashar: Do you mean make super-animals?! I suppose it is possible, but then the question is what about the possibility of the animals rising up and enslaving the human race (e.g. Planet of the Apes) !? Just because we can” is not a good way of looking at things.
Emma: The brain is my favourite organ. In 10 years time I predict we will be able to map the connections in the brain. There are trillions and trillions so this will be difficult but when it’s completed, we will know so much more about how our brain works and what happens when things go wrong.
Carina: In ten years? I don’t think a huge amount will change. In 100, things should be drastically different. I would imagine that we’ll be able to grow new organs, or engineer babies so that they don’t have any problems at all. Also, we’ll have flying cars.
A related thread with answers about therapeutic cloning and its potential to help repair or regrow organs is here
And finally, a question that stumped all the scientists: Do deaf people have silent dreams? This is one of the more fascinating questions I saw and the ponderings rather than answers from the scientists can be found here
For a list of all the scientists in the three zones and the participating schools go here
Why do I’m a scientist?
The philosophy behind I’m a Scientist is all here, but essentially it is a fun way to engage the community with science.
And so, how do you make the best paper plane. I am unsure if this site found by Natasha is the bees knees or not, but you can check it out. Either way, it would be so much cooler to have our own wings, preferably ones that are detachable.
TechNyou was a happy sponsor of this round of I’m a Scientist