VIDEO: Course aims to bridge GMO communication gap

University course designed to inform consumers about the technology, the politics involved and consumer distrust

For two decades, scientists have told the public, thousands of times, that genetically modified crops are safe.

That message has never stuck because polls show that more than half of North Americans still think that GM foods are harmful.

Ag economists and plant science experts at New York’s Cornell University have realized that new communication strategies are needed to connect with consumers who have doubts about GMOs.

Consequently, this month Cornell will offer a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) exploring the scientific and political debate around GMOs.

The Cornell Alliance for Science, which promotes innovation as a means to improve food security, is leading the MOOC on GM foods. The five-week course is free and available to anyone with an internet connection.

“Our intention is not to influence how people feel about GMOs, but to offer information literacy tools to help people make their own informed decisions,” Sarah Evanega, plant breeding and genetics professor at Cornell and director of the Alliance for Science, told the Cornell Sun.

“We (the public) need to understand both the risks and the possible rewards of GMOs.”

The online course will provide basic information on genetic engineering but will also delve into the political and social aspects of the technology.

David Just, a professor of behavioural economics at Cornell, will be one of the course instructors. He will focus on issues beyond science, looking at the public’s response to the technology and why so many people are hostile to GM foods.

“We’re trying to make sure there’s a fair amount of (focus on) people opposed to GMOs,” he said.

Just and the other instructors plan to discuss issues that science can’t address, such as religious views on GM crops and the words used to discuss the topic.

“Here’s how the language is framing how we view (GMOs)… and how the technology gets perceived,” he said.

One key word, when it comes to public perceptions of GM foods, is ‘benefit’. If someone thinks large corporations receive most of the benefits of GM technology, that person is more likely to think that GM foods are unsafe.

Just knows the MOOC will be controversial but he wants to participate because the consumer behaviour around this issue is fascinating.

Plus online courses can encourage a healthy dialogue, which is needed when it comes to GMOs, he said.

“The sides (in this debate) have been talking past each other.”

For more information on the Cornell online course, go to:

Canadians aren’t sold on GM foods

  • A 2012 Farmers Feed Cities survey found that only 41 percent of Canadians think genetically modified foods are safe for consumption
  • An Insights West poll in 2014 determined that 50 percent of people in Alberta and 56 percent in British Columbia would support a ban on genetically modified foods in Canada.
  • A 2013 Consumers’ Association of Canada poll found that 88 percent of Canadians think GM labelling should be mandatory.

Source: staff research

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