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We should debate food security, not GM

Jayesh Shah argues for a broader view

Jayesh Shah argues for a broader view.

I have a request. Could everyone please stop writing news stories that are solely for or against genetically modified (GM) crops? Instead, could you all write a bit more about global food security and the many technologies – including GM – that could potentially ward off a global food crisis? Thanks in advance.

Clouding public understanding

This summer I wrote a blog post about the upcoming Public Attitudes to Science (PAS) 2014 study that Ipsos MORI is conducting, and how it contributes to the GM debate. GM crops are the hardy perennials of science stories. They emerge each year without fail, either saying that GM crops are the only option and should be embraced, or that they are dangerous and should be banned. This year, coverage of a speech by the UK Environment Secretary Owen Paterson restarted the same debate.

These GM stories are important, but they can serve to cloud the public’s understanding of the bigger issue. As the world’s population hits 9 billion by 2050, food prices will rise unless something is done. The 2008 spike in food prices caused riots in 36 countries. The UK can’t hide from this – we import 40 per cent of our food and this proportion is set to increase. Mr Paterson’s speech dealt with these issues, but as he was talking about GM, the media focused on this and largely ignored the global food security problem. This is equivalent to all media stories on climate change talking exclusively about the pros and cons of geosequestration, without mentioning ‘climate change’.

Public neutral

The media tends to inflate the salience of GM. When Ipsos MORI asks people unprompted every month what the most important issues facing the country are, GM never comes up. Media articles often suggest there is widespread fear about GM crops among the public, but this is questionable. Surveys like PAS 2011 have tended to show that people are largely neutral or undecided on the topic, while a recent British Science Association survey showed that concern had declined over the last decade. (A recent YouGov poll did find a relatively high level of opposition, but asked a very specific question, which prompted respondents on the potential benefits and harmful effects of GM crops.)

Moreover, media coverage of GM crops has not created an informed public debate. Many people still have little idea of what ‘genetically modified’ actually means. The recent Wellcome Trust Monitor survey found that only a third of adults think they have a good understanding of the term. Eight per cent of adults have never heard of it. We recently tested out some questions for the PAS 2014 survey, and some of the people we asked were confusing ‘genetically modified’ with ‘organic’, of all things.

To sum up, while there is public concern over GM crops, this is often a very normal fear of the unknown, and concerns only tend to emerge after prompting people on a topic they know little about.

Food security

If we are to move the public away from a simplified debate about the pros and cons of GM crops, and towards an informed debate on global food security, we will need to establish the public’s views on the latter. While there has been some survey research on this before, PAS 2014 hopes to build a more detailed picture. Do people hold contradictory views on GM and food security? Do they even see food security as a science issue, or a purely economic one? Our new survey questions will explore these issues.

Of course, the PAS survey results just give us the foundations for a public debate on global food security. We need further qualitative research and dialogue on global food security before we can fully understand the public’s informed views on this topic. Before then, I’ll be applauding the stories that show the shades of grey, and the important wider context, surrounding the GM debate.

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Jayesh Shah
Jayesh Shah is a Research Manager at Ipsos MORI
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