What can change public opinion of GMO?

By: Anders Ekergård

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The issue of tomorrow's food is more than GM crops, for example are insects often described as an environment-friendly source of protein. However currently I am more interested in GM crops. I’m an undergraduate, I don't have all answers, I may not be totally qualified to explain how double-stranded RNA is used in some GM crops. But it’s interesting. It fascinates me that we at school were taught that RNA is single-stranded, only to later myself read about a traditional Japanese rice variety containing lot’s of double-stranded RNA. A major difference between the two subjects is that, to my knowledge, no one want of forbid people from eating insects, but a large public opinion supports the prohibition of all GM crops altogether.

The public are against GMOs. I myself have been affected by this negative attitude, somewhere in my mind there’s always the question: "What if GMO is as horrible as everyone thinks." The public no longer trust science. Here I shall discuss two scenarios that could change public opinion. I call them the Dyson scenario respective the Schonwald scenario, after the person I first saw using them.

The Dyson scenario is based on Dyson's extremely technique optimistic (naively optimistic?) article Our Biotech Future from 2007. In it he describes a future where biotechnology has been "domesticated" in the same way that computers have been. When computers were expensive and only used by the military and government agencies, they were scary. Today when three year olds plays with tablets more powerful than military supercomputers were a few decades ago, they're not scary. Similarly, biotechnology is scary when it’s available only to large companies, but becomes less scary as the technology becomes more accessible to the public.

The development of DNA sequencing is often compared with the development of computers. In both cases, the speed has increased exponentially and the costs has decrease just as fast. Dyson takes the parable with computers even longer, for him genetic engineering will become just as common as home computers are today. Dyson thinks big (if you know what a Dyson-sphere is, you know why I wrote that) he describes a future in which children breads their own miniature dinosaurs. In short Dyson believes that genetic engineering will be accepted, because everyone will be engage in genetic engineering.

The Schonwald scenario I have taken from Schowalds book The taste of tomorrow. He argues that a popular product can change public opinion. GM products he mentions include: Golden Rice and a GM potato named Innate potatoes. Golden rice, the rice that contain foreign genes to produce beta-carotene and save children from vitamin A deficiency, was proposed already in the 1980s, and a study published in Science in January 2000 showed the concept was possible. Bjørn Lomborg argues that vitamin A deficiency has killed 8 million children over the past 12 years, and made many more blind. If golden rice can prevent such tragedies in the future, one could think the public should reconsider their views.

Innate potatoes is by Schowald describes as “anti-cancer” which is an exaggeration. The background is that compared to regular potato, innate potatoes contains less of both the amino acid asparagine and reducing sugar. Under heat, e.g. in a fryer, asparagine and sugar in potatoes form the potential carcinogenic acrylamide. Therefore crisp/chips and chips/french fry made from innate potatoes will contain less acrylamide. Innate potato was created without introducing any foreign genes, the technique used is called RNA interference, and includes just double-stranded RNA. The problem is of course that chips never is a health food, even if it has lower content of acrylamide. If there’s even is a connection between dietary acrylamide and cancer? Again I’m not the most qualified person to ask. I may be wrong, but I’m not that impress by the potato, on the other side if anyone wants to read more about it and what other features it has, see here: Q & A with Haven Baker on Simplot’s Innate™ Potatoes.

I do not know if the public will change opinion when it comes to GM crops. Maybe it will slowly change simply because the technology is slowly becoming more common, and more and more necessary. Things like potato and coffee were also seen as suspicious then introduced to Europe. There’s even an anecdote that potato was blamed for leprosy, of all diseases. But soon Europeans took both coffee and potato to their hearts. Maybe the same can happen with GM-plants.

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About Myles Power (604 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

4 Comments on What can change public opinion of GMO?

  1. Mandingo, Destroyer of Worlds // August 8, 2013 at 8:00 pm // Reply

    The anti-vaccine hysteria makes the Schonwald scenario seem kind of unrealistic.

    I really like the Dyson scenario. Seems a lot more plausible. I really don’t see how you would make this technology widely available and usable, though. But then, I don’t know much about biology.

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  2. No matter how reasonable your arguments are, there will always be people who oppose them, reasonably or not.

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  3. Good luck with either of those scenarios although I don’t think they will work. Do you know that there are people in the US (about one-third) do not believe in evolution? To accept GMO’s per Dyson, people would have first get over the hurdle of evolution. As far as popular product, the GMO papaya saved the papaya industry and have been used since the 90’s I believe. But there’s been a push in Hawaii to prevent future GMO cultivation in the state and even resort back to growing non-GMO papaya.

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  4. Just chanced upon your post. I think that you’re right about the problem partly being with who’s using biotech, but it’s also about the purposes for which it’s being used.

    The analogy with computers is interesting, especially given Edward Snowden’s revelations. It’s not that computers are scary, but that there are scary (e.g. mass surveillance, the deep web) and non-scary (e.g. sending email, playing Candy Crush Saga on Facebook) uses of computers. What’s more, scary and non-scary are far too subjective (for instance, perhaps people should be a little more worried about Facebook mining their data for commercial gain).

    What we need are robust analyses of the cost and benefits of particular uses of GMOs. Some will be things we should embrace, some we should reject, but the decisions should
    be made openly and independently, guided by concern for public good rather than by the profits of Monsanto et al.

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