Genetically modified disbelief and the lonely road to the sorcerer’s stone

The hot topic, of course, is whether genetically modified organisms are safe or not without risks.

It's an issue that is much debated and one that parties on both sides of the argument are impassioned over when it comes to food safety and nutrition. The hot topic, of course, is whether genetically modified organisms are safe or not without risks.

If you're a farmer or supporter of GMOs, it's an argument that is apparently hard to win in the face of public opinion. Opponents to the GMO issue generally believe there is something sinister about how science “dangerously manipulates organisms” for use in agriculture – in the United States and other places around the world. They adamantly claim that GMOs are a cause of concern for the environment as well, despite overwhelming scientific research that shows otherwise. While it may be true that some concern, such as herbicide resistance in weeds and the involvement of multinationals, are not without risks, they are not specific to GMOs alone.

That's why agricultural industry leaders have been encouraging farmers and laboratory researchers to engage the public as often as possible to present the real story, the truth behind GMOs and how they are designed to benefit humankind by multiplying production and increasing food safety.

According to Stefaan Blancke, a researcher at Ghent University and a contributor to the Scientific American, "negative representations of GMOs are widespread and compelling because they are intuitively appealing." He rationalizes that if negative arguments are easy to remember, then they are often repeated to others whether they are true or not.

Blancke, a doctor of philosophy and cultural anthropology, suggests repeating a widespread assumption is an easier path than discerning and illustrating a complicated truth. If indeed this is the fuel for the misconception and perpetual repeat of a falsehood, it is reasonable to assume it is basic human nature to accept what is popularly believed to be true than discerning and accepting what otherwise is steeped in real, science-supported truth.

For many who oppose the use of GMOs, talking about the dangers of them is appealing because if it were true that genetically modified organisms were a threat to human life it, might explain a plethora of unresolved issues, like claims that genetically modified organisms are responsible for mysterious and even assumed illnesses, or a culprit that negatively affects the environment. Liken it to any good conspiracy theory; it seems to explain the things we do not understand. Believing untrue claims about GMOs fits well into the fears of the misinformed; things we do not fully understand we seldom trust, and therefore do not support.

Dr. Sheri Jacobson is an accredited psychotherapist who says catastrophizing is what is known in psychology as a “cognitive distortion” — an habitual and unconscious way of thinking that something is not realistic and based instead on misperception. In the case of believing genetically modified organisms are the blight of scientific research, thinking it becomes a case of negative exaggeration, an antithesis, the refusal to believe what can scientifically be endorsed is a falsehood.

Forget the Norman Borlaugs, the Chassys, Devlins, Hiatts, Spurgeons, Bartas and thousands of other researchers who have invented, re-invented, assembled, disassembled and fine-tuned the science behind the GMO issue. Forget that research continues with the development of salt tolerant plants based upon the science, crops that produce omega-3 fatty acids, canola that requires half the amount of nitrogen fertilizer, pink pineapples that contain cancer-fighting lycopene, and wheat and peanuts with reduced potential to cause allergies, GM animals that are being developed to be healthier, salmon that grow to market size faster, chickens that are resistant to avian influenza, and pigs that utilize phosphorus more efficiently and pollute less. Forget the other disciplines and industry that can benefit, the development of vaccines, for example.

It's been nearly a decade since a comprehensive EU study concluded that the science of genetically modified organisms was drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups. In the end, the study suggested that “biotechnology, in particular GMOs, are not per se riskier than conventional plant breeding technologies.”

While even the most supportive GMO scientist will admit testing of the effects, benefits and risks of genetically modified organisms should continue regularly at the highest and deepest level, the issue of whether the truth about GMOs will ever be widely accepted depends largely on intelligent people sharing the science with those who have their doubts, people like environmentally-aware investor Bill Gates who offers the truth about GMOs regularly to anyone who will listen.

"GMO foods are perfectly healthy, and the technique has the possibility to reduce starvation and malnutrition when it is reviewed in the right way," Gates wrote. "I don't stay away from non-GMO foods, but it is disappointing that people view them as better."

In the end, supporters of GMOs, those who understand the science, are responsible for sharing the evidence with those who do not, in an attempt to dispel the notion that GMOs are some dark magic taken from a spell book to make vicious rich men wealthier at the expense of the poor for some world-domination scheme drafted in a deep and dark secret laboratory.

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