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What Will Convince People That Genetically Modified Foods Are Okay?

In California, a loss for labeling GM foods has both sides wondering when people wil stop shouting and start thinking

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Genetically modified foods are a hot button issue for a lot of people. Just a few weeks ago, California voters said no to a proposition that would label all GM foods in stores. Proponents of the proposition—Prop 37—point to big mega-companies like Monsanto, which poured millions of dollars into ads encouraging California voters to reject the measure. Prop 37 advocates labeled the proposition as the “Right to Know” initiative and claimed that consumers should know when their food is genetically modified.

The subtext to all this is that some people believe GM crops are evil. And the proposition, like almost all discussions of GM foods, turned political quickly. But what will it take to change people’s minds about GM foods?

TIME explains why this debate is often so heated:

Food is the most personal of environmental issues — after all, we vote on it three times a day — which is why GM food is so controversial. Head over to the home page of the Right to Know campaign backing Prop 37, and you’ll see item after item about the potential dangers of GM food. It’s “Frankenfood,” the potentially dangerous product of loosely regulated genetic engineering. A widely publicized French study that was published earlier this fall crystallized those fears — the scientists reported that they found that rats fed a lifetime diet of GM corn developed tumors and suffered organ damage compared with rats fed a non-GM diet.

But others push back against the anti-GMO movement, pointing out that there is very little science actually documenting negative effects from genetically modified foods. Yale Environment 360 asked, “Why are environmentalists taking anti-science positions?” The publication reports:

Nonetheless, the reaction of some in the environment community to the reasoned critical responses of scientists to the paper has been to claim a global conspiracy among researchers to hide the terrible truth. One scientist was dismissed on the Web site GM Watch for being “a longtime member of the European Food Safety Authority, i.e. the very body that approved the GM corn in question.” That’s like dismissing the findings of a climate scientist because he sits on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the “very body” that warned us about climate change. See what I mean about aping the worst and most hysterical tactics of the climate contrarians?

Now in California, the issue is more complicated than whether or not GM foods are good or bad. Instead, voters were choosing whether or not they wanted their food to be labeled as such. New Scientist points out the flaw in that plan:

Imagine there are two plates of food in front of you. One is labelled “natural”, the other “genetically modified”. Which would you choose? I know what I’d do. Regardless of what the logical side of me knows, I’d feel more comfortable eating “natural” food.

In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be a problem. If people don’t want to eat GM food, they shouldn’t have to, regardless of whether their reasons are rational or not. Food is about so much more than just stuffing down nutrients, after all, and how we feel about what we eat really does matter.

Trouble is, the world is far from ideal. Nearly a billion people go hungry because they cannot grow or buy enough food. And there are problems with the food we do eat. An estimated 2 billion people suffer from a lack of iron, causing everything from tiredness to premature death. Around 250 million preschool children are short of vitamin A, leading to blindness in the worst cases.

And since the reaction to genetically modified food isn’t generally based on science, New Scientist argues that it’s not science that will win people over to GM’s benefits. Michael Le Page writes:

How can this opposition be overcome? Not by rational argument, that’s for sure. Even for those who understand that nature is the ultimate mad scientist, and that plants are riddled with all kinds of genetic modifications, from mistakes made during DNA replication to insertions of viral DNA, it doesn’t make existing GM crops any more appealing.

Instead, he argues that a campaign that shows people, not through science, but through emotions, the good side of GM, could work. Another possibility: just trick people into eating GM foods by not telling them that’s what they’re eating. Or, he says, the United States should just let the free market decide who sinks and who swims.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Food, Modified Food
Five Game-Changing Crops That Could Help Feed the Hungry

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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