Genetic engineering has reduced pesticide sprays, increased yields, reduced food costs to consumers, stabilized agricultural production and improved nutrition all over the world.
But a growing number of consumers just don’t get it, and David R. Just, thinks he knows why.
“In general, we find a large and growing number of consumers who stigmatize GMOs,” said Just, co-director, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. “This stigma has long been a factor in Europe, and we see the same pattern emerging in the United States.”
Just says consumers “tend to associate GMOs primarily with some unquantifiable health risk, similar to that posed by untested or poorly tested drugs or medication.”
He believes consumers tend to see genetic engineering as a “monolithic technology” without much benefit to anyone but farmers. “This misperception allows consumers to perceive GMOs in caricature, with each being equally risky and none possessing any particular benefits.”
At least part of the blame for this one-dimensional view of genetic engineering can be placed on agriculture for not having gotten consumers on board early in the development of biotechnology, essentially allowing misinformation and hyperbole to dominate the GMO conversation.
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But it’s not too late for agriculture to connect with consumers, according to Just. More importantly, he believes people will listen. “When consumers are presented with direct explanations of the direct benefits to consumers, they are much more willing to accept the technology,” he said.
For example, genetic engineering is often lauded for increasing agricultural productivity. But a point not emphasized enough is that the technology has reduced the price of commodities by 4 percent to 10 percent.
In India, genetically modified eggplant is helping farmers reduce pesticide use and increase yields.
Genetically modified corn in Africa has helped reduce the prevalence of mycotoxins in maize, which has been linked to esophageal cancer and birth defects. “This new technology promises to make developing-country agriculture competitive with the West, and to help reduce poverty worldwide,” Just said.
He adds that farmers in developing countries “have paid a very high price for consumer rejection of biotechnology in the European Union, forcing them to choose between sustainable productivity and access to markets,” Just said.
“If we are to turn the tide of irrational consumer fears regarding biotechnology, firms that produce GMOs must make a concerted effort to communicate both the direct health benefits to U.S. consumers from reduced use of chemicals in food production, and the indirect benefits to developing country consumers of more abundant and lower-cost food,” Just said.