The World Isn't Scared of GMOs Anymore

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Is the "GMO debate" finally over? A new study indicates the end might be near.

The anti-GMO movement has lost much of its cultural relevance in recent years and it now appears that the political debate surrounding crop biotechnology is all but over. We've discussed a number of developments over the last year that point in this direction—most recently Europe's softening trade restrictions in the face of food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine. But we can now point to some empirical data related to the GMO debate itself.

Writing in the Journal GM Crops & Food, a team of authors affiliated with Cornell's Alliance For Science analyzed 103,084 online and print articles and 1,716,071 social media posts related to genetically engineered crops. Conclusion? Most people seem to have lost interest in fighting about GMOs.

Both traditional and social media saw trends toward increasing favorability, with the positive trend especially robust in social media. The large decline in volume of social media posts, combined with a strong trend toward greater favorability, may indicate a drop in the salience of the GMO debate among the wider population even while the volume of coverage in traditional media increased.”

A closer look at the findings confirms that we're just not bothered by crop biotechnology anymore, despite an intense push by activist groups and lawyers to keep the controversy alive in the courts. 

Nobody cares

What should we expect to see if the GMO controversy has really run out of steam? Before reading this study, I would have said a general lack of public interest in the issue. It appears we have that and more. The authors pointed out that social media interactions about crop biotech plummeted over the two-year study period (2018-2020), “falling from nearly 1.2 million to just under 200,000 … a decline of 82%,” they wrote.

They also noted that legacy media coverage of crop biotechnology surged during the same time span, tripling from 1,320 articles in January 2018 to 4,502 articles by December 2020. Most of this coverage and online discussion painted GE crops in a favorable light, though the positivity trend was “relatively noisy” given wild swings in favorability from month to month. What might explain the undulation?

Monsanto keeps the controversy alive

After dozens of state-level initiatives to label GE foods failed in 2015, the anti-biotech movement needed a new angle. [1] They pivoted to a legal assault on the pesticides that are often paired with genetically engineered crops, primarily the weed killer glyphosate. Not only did this activist-legal complex bilk Bayer out of billions of dollars in damages, but they also kept reporters and social media users interested in the lawsuits. Stories of corporate malfeasance—“glyphosate is carcinogenic and Bayer lied about it”—are inherently compelling even if they're false, and this one clearly is. [2] As the authors explained:

Monsanto (now part of Bayer) and its association with pesticides, notably glyphosate, appears to strongly drive negative perceptions toward GMOs. Coverage of Monsanto/Bayer in both traditional and social media was consistently and considerably more negative than coverage of GMOs overall. In some months almost the entirety of the social media conversation took a negative tone, such as April 2019 and November 2020, with only 1% favorability.”

There's no way to know exactly why the conversation unfolded this way, but here's one possibility. With the Bayer trials almost constantly in the headlines during this period, activist outfits like Environmental Working Group churned out “studies” hyping the alleged dangers of glyphosate exposure, with an emphasis on its presence in foods consumed by young children.

The news coverage generally went like this: Jury rules against pesticide maker, and now there's evidence that its deadly herbicide has tainted your baby's cheerios. Somewhere between one-third to one-half of media reports about GMOs during this period contained references to Monsanto or Bayer, the study authors noted.

These stories gave the activist groups the attention they needed, forcing organizations like ACSH to respond, as social media users with varying concerns on either side of the issue lined up to give their take on the situation. “Media coverage of GMO issues does not arise in a vacuum,” the authors wrote. “Instead, it reflects political, ideological, and economic contests in societies.”

Good news: the world isn't scared of GMOs

The glyphosate hysteria kept the biotech controversy alive, but it was still on life support. America's overall perception of the technology remained positive. The rest of the world seemed to share this outlook, too. News coverage and social media interactions related to crop biotech in five other countries were either favorable or neutral. The authors reported that

“ Geographically, the United States dominates the GMO conversation, both in terms of volume and reach ... The conversation is generally favorable in the US, Africa, and South Asia, though it remains divided in the Philippines, where GM corn has been adopted but international controversies remain over the recent adoption of GM Golden Rice.

The paper didn't discuss the burgeoning social justice campaign to frame crop biotechnology as a tool of Western “neocolonialism.” But these trends nonetheless offer further confirmation that farmers and consumers in the developing world want access to GE crops or aren't concerned about them entering the food supply.

This positive perception is greatest in countries that have recently approved the use of crop biotechnology, “with farmers and media seeing the positive results of field trials,” the authors suggested. The takeaway seems to be that giving growers access to enhanced seed varieties is the best way to determine how they feel about GMOs. They don't need magazines like Scientific American to speak for them.

Overall, then, the world continues to shed its apprehension about GE crops as more countries embrace the technology and see positive results. This changing perception appears to be reflected in legacy media coverage and social media discussions about GMOs. Let's give the study authors the last word:

... [O]ur results suggest that both social and traditional media may be moving toward a more favorable and less polarized conversation on ag biotech overall.”


[1] As a rule, foods aren't genetically modified, the ingredients they're made from are.

[2] There is no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer, as we have explained many times.