More knowledge changes GM attitudes: study

A Sask. psychologist finds that consumers warm up to genetically modified food after learning more about the science

For more than two decades, plant scientists and other experts have tried to convince people that genetically modified food is safe.

Their arguments haven’t worked.

Public polling continues to show that 40 to 50 percent of Canadians think GM food is unsafe to eat, despite decades of research showing it is safe.

Online discussions about GM food are even more negative.

Data from social media monitoring of Canadians suggests that 60 percent of conversations about GM food fall into the “GMOs are bad” category.

It’s time for scientists and experts to take a different approach, says a University of Regina psychologist.

Instead of proclaiming that GM food is harmless, provide people with information about genes, plants and DNA.

“If I tell you the scientists think it’s safe and I think it’s safe … this doesn’t work,” said Jon McPhetres, a post doc researcher in psychology at the U of R and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

While earning his PhD at the University of Rochester in New York, McPhetres got interested in public perceptions of GM food because he was interested in people’s general knowledge of science and how to improve that knowledge.

McPhetres started with a hyphothesis: people with more scientific knowledge and more knowledge about genetically modified technology have more positive opinions of GM food.

To test out that theory, he conducted a series of social psychology experiments in the United States and Europe.

For starters, he studied publicly available data from the General Social Survey in the U.S. to evaluate the relationship between basic scientific knowledge and perceptions of GM food.

“To see if science knowledge is even related,” he said.

“It turned out that it was, in that data.”

McPhetres then teamed up with psychologists at the University of Amsterdam and Cardiff University to measure the connection between scientific understanding of GM technology and attitudes toward GM food.

They developed a set of questions for an online survey to see what respondents knew about the science, methods and benefits of GM food and procedures.

“The question there (was): in the U.S. and these other countries, is that level of knowledge really what’s the most important deciding factor for people’s attitudes?” he said.

The team found that specific knowledge of GM technology is even more important than general scientific knowledge. More knowledge of GM food equals better opinions about GM food.

“(It) is the greatest determining factor of their attitudes towards the food, overriding all other tested factors,” the University of Rochester said in a news release.

“In fact, existing GM knowledge was more than 19 times higher as a determinant, compared to the influence of demographic factors such as a person’s education, socioeconomic status, race, age, and gender.”

McPhetres didn’t stop there.

He wanted to know the following: if you give people more information, does it change their opinion of GM food?

To test that theory, he conducted an experiment with 231 undergrads at the University of Rochester. Working with a biologist, McPhetres created a set of learning modules on the basic science behind GM technology.

In the first session, participants answered questions and wrote down their thoughts about GMOs. Then in the following three sessions, they watched online videos and other online material about DNA, genes and how genes are inserted into plants.

After going through the modules, the subjects answered the same set of questions about GM food.

The result? After learning the basic science, subjects decided GM food was less risky and were more willing to eat it.

The finding isn’t shocking because more knowledge is usually a good thing.

However, it suggests that previous attempts to sway public opinion were misguided.

A pronouncement by an expert or a group of experts isn’t an effective way to change minds.

“Most past research and most scientists … (focused) on trying to convince people. ‘Hey look, GMOs are safe. I promise,’ ” McPhetres said.

“They skipped the basic science knowledge…. What is DNA, what is a gene, what does it mean when we change a gene?”

Providing the basic information is likely more effective because people are curious, want to learn and want to reach a conclusion on their own.

Teaching 231 undergrads about GMOs is one thing, but how can scientists reach 360 million people in Canada and the U.S?

McPhetres said there are endless opportunities on the internet to provide information about the fundamental science behind GM food.

“This is knowledge we can give people (continually),” he said.

“(And) this is knowledge that scientists … should probably be communicating when they talk about their research.”

McPhetres’ findings were recently published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

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