Shifting opinions on genetically modified crops in Europe will require more than government-led conversation, says policy communication researcherMatthew Nisbet
In a carefully crafted speech, UK environment minister Owen Paterson announced that the government would be leading “a more informed discussion” on genetically modified (GM) crops and that he was “conscious of the views of those who have concerns and who need reassurance on this matter”.
His remarks signal that the UK wants to build support for GM crops despite there being an effective moratorium on their use in Europe. But no matter how well framed the messages might be from political leaders, other engagement strategies and voices are needed if it is to succeed.
A recent British Science Association survey suggests that when prompted to consider the benefits to human health and the environment, a strong majority of the British public are supportive of GM crops. But when asked more generally, roughly 40 per cent remain uncertain about risks and benefits. There also remains strong scepticism from about 1 in 10 people. Across Europe opposition is even stronger.
Ambivalence and entrenched scepticism do not stem from scientific ignorance; but from differences in values and world views. Opponents of GM crops often espouse idealised visions of nature and farming, voice concerns over changes to cultural practices and traditions, and are deeply suspicious of the food biotech industry.
As I wrote last year in New Scientist, when protests over a trial of genetically modified wheat in the UK were making headlines, no amount of smart messaging by government officials and scientists is likely to overcome this opposition or to assuage the uncertainty of those who remain ambivalent. Efforts to defend and translate the science of GM crops too often avoid the real roots of contention.
Instead, across Europe, proponents of GM crops need to initiate conversations within their local communities and regions not just about the science of GM crops, but also about issues related to governance, transparency, ownership, and cultural and economic impacts.
Responsible voices from the environmental community also need to step forward. In general, we tend to pay closest attention to the opinions of people perceived to share our values and identity. In this regard, former anti-GM-organism activist Mark Lynas, who publicly ended his opposition to the technology, is an important example.
Given the vocal opposition of their peers, until recently, there have been few incentives for environmentalists to voice support for GM crops, even if they quietly recognise the benefits of the technology in coping with challenges like climate change.
Shift in perceptions
By speaking out about his change of mind and support for GM crops, Lynas has helped to create the conditions for other prominent environmentalists to step forward. What’s needed now is for others to find the courage to follow his lead. At stake is the credibility of the environmental community.
Public engagement efforts can further catalyse a shift in perceptions by identifying and recruiting everyday opinion-leaders within communities. Environmentalists, farmers, health professionals and others are the trusted confidants and information brokers who can start conservations with their peers about the benefits, risks, trade-offs and cultural implications of GM crops.
People are much more likely to be receptive to reconsidering their views on the issue if engaged in a conversation by those they view as a friend, neighbour or work colleague, rather than by a government representative or scientist.
Given the polarised nature of the debate, GM crop proponents will have to compromise and negotiate on aspects of regulation and policy; with a mix of incremental victories and short-term defeats to be expected. But this process can be made easier with careful thought and investment in communication and public engagement efforts, and if new voices have the courage to step forward.
Matthew Nisbet is associate professor of communication and co-director of the Center for Social Media at American University, Washington DC
- The Positive Impact of Biotechnology on the Sustainability of the Agricultural and Food Industry (catalyzingillinois.com)