Joanna Sax: GMOs – Science battles with the public again

Joanna Sax, PhD, JD, is the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and a Professor of Law at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, and we are very pleased to share a guest post of hers on the disconnect between public opinion and the scientific community when it comes to GMOs:

GMO foods are fighting a hard battle with the public. Some concerns by the public may be warranted, other concerns have no factual basis. 

We have a problem with our food supply. Children are dying of starvation.  Not only do we need more food, but we need healthy food. Novel technology is a promising way to increase and improve our food supply.Joanna Sax

But, there is public resistance to GMO food – or the type of food that utilizes molecular biology. This concern exists even though our entire food supply is full of genetically modified foods, usually accomplished through traditional husbandry techniques. The use of molecular biology techniques to enhance food faces strong public opposition. Not as much public opposition is targeted towards traditional husbandry techniques. But, it’s unclear why, especially when almost our entire food supply is mutated forms of wild-type varieties.

Agriculture is not inherently environmentally-friendly. It may be that GMO foods will provide a novel way to contribute to sustainable farming, it may not. It’s worth it to ask whether we can use molecular biology to be eco-friendly. 

While we learn more about the promise of GMO food – we may have some hiccups along the way. Some types of crops may be less eco-friendly, some may be less tasty. Each hiccup should not stymie an entire area of research, especially here, where people are dying of hunger.

This isn’t the first time that novel technologies have faced public scrutiny. Other examples include vaccinations, embryonic stem cell research, fluoridated water, and anti-smoking research. The list can go on. Scientists often do a terrible job explaining the technology and the benefits that flow therefrom.  Instead, parties opposed to the science get the message out first. The public hasn’t even had a chance to learn what the technology is to make informed opinions. 

If scientists want to stop facing such strong opposition to major advances, they must present their work in a public-friendly manner. The science is complicated, but it can be disseminated in non-technical terms. Here, GMO foods might provide a way to alleviate human suffering and improve our food supply. The contours of this area – that is, can it live up to the potential, must be explored, questioned, and evaluated. But, the science needs a little space to breathe. If there is opposition, let it be on the science, not on inchoate fear.  


  1. Oori Weisshaus, PhD

    I too believe that the Ag-bio industry has done a poor job in explaining new technologies. However this is not the limiting factor in new technology adoption, but rather the perceived added value.

    The classic example being cellular phone technology that had been adopted extremely fast by the public despite known potential dangers (magnetic radiation etc) and huge gaps in public knowledge of the science behind it –  all becaue the added value of a mobile phone hardly needs  explaining.

    Instead , the Ag-bio industry has put in large efforts into products with no clear and direct added value for the end-consumer.

    As a part of this industry, and a big supporter of GMO technology, I too would question the necessity of  the risk of consuming an apple doesn’t turn brown. I would, however, be much more likely to adopt an apple that prevents dental caries even if the technology poses some uncertain risk.

    Most of the public does not want to know more about the technology, in order to perceive it safe, or at all.

    The Ag-Bio industry  just has to deliver a benefit that’s worth taking the risk in the rich world. Develop the next “mobile-phone” of GMO fruit and see how technical explanations are only left for us science experts, the rest of the people would simply buy it.


  2. Cynthia

    While I am not a scientist, or have a PhD in anything my opinion may not matter to many.  What I do know is that over the past 50 years more and more people have a cancer or know many people who have cancer.  Where does that initial cancer cell come from, depending on the type of cancer, not even your cancer research faciities know.

    What I do know is that natural is the best.  Yes there are staving people and there will always be starving people, just thank God you are not one of them, and if you can you help as much as possible but you are just as niave to think that anything we do will hellp.  What will hellp is people not having childern that they cannot not support, but people are to iqnorant to realize that. 

    So, as MAN has always done in the past, is create something new or a new way to help and it ends up being a disaster, many many years later, when there is no one to blame but society who really just needs to follow what the government puts in place because the government is so freakin smart trying to help the needy of the world.  That sounds cruel but when people learn to help themselves we become a sustainable world.

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