5 – Genetically modified organisms

Fear of the unknown can be a powerful force. I didn’t quite appreciate how powerful until I listened to an interesting experiment on national radio.

ABC Radio National has a program called Bush Telegraph, which last year ran “Grow Your Own”. A producer of irrigated cotton offered one of his fields to be managed according to popular vote of listeners, with the aim of educating the public about the trade-offs and complexities involved.

The program ran over the whole growing season for a crop of cotton. There were a number of interesting outcomes but the vote on whether to use GM or conventional cotton was stunning. Up to that point, the listeners had tended to vote for “green” management practices. For example, they voted for manure rather than synthetic chemical fertilizers, which in truth would probably have minimal benefits to the environment, if any. It was explained that GM cotton would allow the number of applications of chemical pesticides to be dramatically reduced but the majority of voting listeners still preferred non-GM.

They were prepared to put up with a technology that has well quantified, well understood, immediate, adverse impacts on the environment, as well as imposing health risks on the farmer, for what gain? For the gain of avoiding some low probability of bad outcomes from a technology which, in the case of cotton, has been grown for years on large areas with no known adverse impacts of any sort. One could imagine that there might be some sort of nasty surprise down the track, with unanticipated negative consequences from growing GM cotton, but they would have to be dramatic to justify this decision, wouldn’t they? Remember, the choice is between:

  • an unknown but probably small chance of some unknown adverse outcome at some unknown future time, and
  • the certainty of a well understood adverse outcome, immediately.

Economists are prone to assume that people are rational, but there is scant evidence of it in this example. The choice most people voted for seems to me to be strongly against their own preferences for protecting the environment.

It is interesting to speculate what is going on here. It is well established in the research on risky decision making that people tend to give undue weight to outcomes that are small-probability but extreme. Perhaps they are imagining catastrophes, and considering them to be more likely than they really are.

Even if they get the probabilities right, people do have a natural tendency to give more emphasis to negative outcomes than to positive ones. Most of us are “risk averse”. But not usually to the extent implied by this voting pattern.

Lack of trust in science may also be part of the problem. These days, reassurances from experts don’t carry the weight that they once did.

Finally, ignorance clearly plays a big part. There is a lack of knowledge of even the basics of genetics and DNA. In a 1998 international survey, 60 percent of people responded that they do not eat any foods containing DNA!! The mind boggles. I wonder if they would be alarmed to learn that they each have DNA in every cell. Would they think it got there through eating contaminated foods?

To further confound an understanding of Australian community attitudes to GM, there seems to be an acceptance of GM products in medicines, such as relenza (for treatment of influenza) or insulin (replacing production of insulin from pigs’ livers).

It seems to me that it can’t just be the “unknown” aspect of GM that is driving public attitudes. There are plenty of other scientific and environmental issues that the public knows little about which don’t generate such a confounding and apparently irrational set of responses. Somehow, opponents have successfully imbued the subject with a sense that it is unnatural and almost evil. The fact that all domesticated plants and animals (i.e. the ones you eat) are much more different from their wild “natural” ancestors than from GM varieties is apparently not an equivalent concern.

I don’t think it can last. The radically different attitudes of most consumers in North America and the acceptance even in Australia of GM medicines suggests that although Australians don’t yet feel that the benefits outweigh the risks, they will accept GM plants eventually.

Of course we need to continue to be careful with GM, as with any new technology. The CSIRO sums up the issue quite well:

“Gene technology is a new and powerful technology; it offers potentially enormous benefits, but is not without risks. Gene technologists can’t provide an iron-clad guarantee that the new technology is completely safe, nor can they predict all its health, environmental, economic or social consequences – good or bad.” (http://genetech.csiro.au/)

It is a matter requiring care, but also balance.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

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