Research & Insights

Put Your Data Away: Food economists say sharing the science on GMOs is a waste

By Amanda Kastrinos

Brandon McFadden and Jayson Lusk, University of Florida

A new University of Florida study suggests that when it comes to forming opinions based on scientific information, first impressions are everything. And once set, people’s opinions are not likely to be swayed, even when confronted with credible information to the contrary.

In a study published in the July 2015 issue of Food Policy, food economics researchers Brandon McFadden and Jayson Lusk surveyed 961 people about their opinions on the safety of genetically modified crops and human involvement in climate change. The participants answered questions about their current beliefs and responded to statements like, “Genetically modified crops are safe to eat,” or “The Earth is getting warmer because of human actions.”

They also responded to questions asking whether their beliefs were based on scientific data and other questions that gauged their knowledge of the issues.

The first round responses regarding climate change showed that 64 percent of participants believed humans were to blame for rising temperatures, 18 percent disagreed and 18 percent were unsure. The divide was greater about genetically modified foods. Only 32 percent of respondents said they believe these crops are safe to eat.

Participants then read information sheets on each issue with statements from highly regarded scientific organizations, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association, the National Research Council and the American Medical Association.

For instance, the statement from the National Academies of the United States explained that, “[t]o date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” The statement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science claimed that “[t]he scientific evidence is clear: Global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.”

In a followup survey, participants were asked whether their opinions on GMOs had changed, ranking their feelings from “much less safe” to “much more safe,” and how they felt about the human relationship to climate change, whether humans are “much more involved” or “much less involved.”

The second survey showed that exposure to scientific information caused 50 percent of respondents to believe even more strongly that human actions lead to global warming. On the other hand, though, the number of people who believe GMOs are safe to eat only increased to 45 percent, while 43 percent of participants’ opinions remaining unchanged.

Some 12 percent of participants said they felt genetically modified crops were even less safe than before, despite statements from esteemed international science organizations touting their safety and benefit to society.

According to McFadden, the findings suggest that once our beliefs form, we never let them go. Even when presented with contradictory information, we either disregard it as untrue or misinterpret it to conform to what we already believe.

McFadden and Lusk found that their participants only assimilated the new scientific information if it somewhat aligned with how they felt about the issues during the first survey. They determined that “the best indicator for whether a person will adopt scientific information is simply what a person believes before receiving the information.”

These results account for the frequent disconnect between the scientific community and public opinion, especially when it comes to food and health. For instance, there is a clear scientific consensus about the safety of genetically modified foods, but the results from this study’s first survey revealed that the participants’ opinions don’t agree with those findings. McFadden and Lusk said this could be because, when forming that critical first impression on the issues, “[people] place greater weight on other types of non-scientific information,” such as new stories and information from social networks.

Food Policy

Amanda Kastrinos is the Communications Coordinator for the University of Florida Horticultural Sciences Department and a freelance science writer focusing on biotechnology and agriculture. Follow her on Twitter @mandilkastrinos 

Posted: August 24, 2015
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