There is a decent chance that you come across misinformation at least once a week about climate change, politics, vaccines, and genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). Misinformation about these contentious issues is persistent and often difficult to correct.
Specifically, misinformation about GMOs borders on a pandemic. It is usually characterized by deliberate ‘bad actors’ and a wagon of uninformed followers who spread unverified facts about genetic engineering technologies and their products. While scientists and informed people would have ignored these ‘bad actors’ in the past, there is an emerging trend to counter these false narratives with facts.
Credit to the Alliance for Science at the Boyce Thomson Institute and its partners for taking this challenge head-on to create a platform for discussing genetic engineering technologies soberly. In this collection in the open-access peer-reviewed academic journal GM Crops & Food, edited by Mark Lynas and Professor Robert Paarlberg, narratives and misinformation about GMOs are deconstructed from different perspectives.
Changing public narratives on GMOs
Specifically, the articles dissect how traditional and social media discuss GMOs, the link between GMOs and other controversial topics, and the genesis of this misinformation. Changing public narratives on GMOs requires understanding the contexts where these discussions occur. Most non-experts access information about GM products through social media platforms, which play a significant role in spreading misinformation.
Sohi and others analyzed the public sentiments towards GMOs displayed on social media between 2019 and 2021. They demonstrated that 54 percent of these sentiments were neutral, 32 percent were negative, and 14 percent were positive. Surprisingly, further emotional analysis of these sentiments showed that 72 percent expressed a negative emotion (disgust, sadness, anger, and fear), with 28 percent showing joy despite most neutral sentiments.
These negative sentiments and emotions illustrate why some governments have banned the adoption of genetic engineering technologies in agriculture. Nevertheless, misinformation is not limited to social media only. The traditional mainstream and online news media also contribute to misinformation about GMOs. Lynas and colleagues evaluated 535 articles with global reach about GMOs published between 2019 and 2021. They found that 91 percent of the articles were accurate, with nine percent containing misinformation. This percentage is relatively high compared to misinformation levels on other contentious topics such as climate change, vaccines, and Covid-19.
Issues integral to our daily lives
Interestingly, 100 percent of the misinformation on GMOs in traditional media is characterized as negative, neutral, or mixed with no positive sentiment. This is not as shocking as GMO misinformation is mainly on animal and human health and the environment, issues integral to our daily lives. Interestingly, while GMOs have been negatively perceived over time, emerging data from 2018 to 2022 shows that new breeding technologies, such as gene editing, received positive reviews from both traditional and social media platforms.
Whether scientists have improved their communication about these subjects or negative reviews, have been drowned out by the flood of positivity needs to be scrutinized and reported. Another thought-provoking perspective in this collection is how the Covid-19 pandemic affected perceptions and consumption of GM foods in China. Ding and colleagues used household data collected in 2020 to study perceptions of GM food safety and how the Covid-19 pandemic altered consumption behavior. Their results showed that households’ perception and consumption of GM foods declined after the Covid-19 outbreak.
This is a normal outcome, given that GM technologies and products are still controversial in China. Moreover, the miscommunication around these controversial topics in China has challenged the authority of Chinese scientists. In the context of GM foods, these have substantial policy implications because conventional agriculture cannot meet the food demands of the Chinese population. Based on their results, about 40 percent of consumers have a negative outlook toward GM foods, a barrier that the Chinese government must overcome to accelerate the commercialization of GM crops. Countering anti-GM narratives and misinformation requires the scientific community to investigate their genesis and share facts with the public.
Erokhin and Komendantova investigated how X (formerly Twitter) contributes to the misinformation and conspiracy theories about GMOs by analyzing over a million English posts made between January 2020 and December 2022. Even though posts on X (formerly Twitter) may not capture the overall public perception, they may give a glimpse of the prevailing narrative, which may help shape public perception and subsequent policy frameworks. While the scientific consensus may provide GMOs with a clean bill of health, public sentiments from this analysis diverge from the scientific viewpoint. About 33 percent of the analyzed posts had a negative feeling towards GMOs, likely fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Narratives and perceptions of genetic engineering
As expected, clusters of these anti-GM posts are also associated with divisive issues such as Covid-19, vaccines, and oft-cited conspiracist targets like Monsanto and Bill Gates. This collection gives us a valuable glimpse of the everyday narratives and perceptions about genetic engineering technologies and products.
Dr Oria (PhD) is a LEAD Fellow, Prof Janine Erler Research Group, Biotech Research and Innovation Centre – University of Copenhagen, Denmark.