New research has found that people with the strongest opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are also the people who know the least about them — and believe they know the most.
The research, led by the University of Colorado, was published in Nature's journal Human Behaviour and involved four studies with over 2,500 participants internationally.
The researchers rated participants' attitudes towards GMOs as well as asking them to make judgments about their own scientific understanding of GMOs.
The participants' general scientific literacy was also assessed with a quiz that asked them to respond to statements such as "Electrons are smaller than atoms" as true or false as well as their objective knowledge of GMOs.
As the extremity of opposition to GMOs increased, the researchers found that scientific literacy decreased — but self-assessed knowledge increased.
The authors stated that "across four studies conducted in three countries, we found that extreme opponents of genetic engineering technology display a lack of insight into how much they know."
This effect was seen across different levels of education, indicating that levels of scientific literacy are not directly related to general education level.
Professor David Tribe, a senior lecturer in agriculture and food systems from the University of Melbourne, told Buzzfeed News that the research shows how opposition to GMO use is more of a political association than a belief based in fact.
"My opinion is that the extreme opposition is certainly not based on an empirical, evidence-based, technical basis, it's tied to political ideology or philosophical ideology — those sort of deep-rooted convictions," he said.
The authors of the Human Behaviour study said that their research highlights that those people who are most in need of education about GMOs are also "the least likely to be receptive to learning".
In order to improve scientific literacy, the authors said that those with extreme beliefs have to first appreciate the gaps in their knowledge.
Tribe refers to GMO opposition as analogous to vaccine opposition and said that it is a challenge for science communication to make people understand GMOs' benefit outweighs any concerns.
So, what exactly are GMOs?
A GMO is an organism that has had its genes altered through human intervention using genetic engineering. This process primarily involves modifying genes that are already present rather than inserting foreign genetic material.
Humans have been genetically altering organisms through selective breeding for approximately 30,000 years; the dog is considered to be the first organism that humans chose to genetically alter and is the product of selective breeding from wolves.
Crops that were genetically altered through artificial selection first appeared around 7,800 BCE.
The first organism that was genetically modified using genetic engineering (other than bacteria) was a mouse that was genetically altered in 1974 to carry a DNA virus that produced tumours for cancer research.
In 1992 the first GMO approved for sale was the Flavr Savr tomato, which was created to slow down the ripening process of tomatoes and increase their shelf life.
The wide adoption of GM crops has resulted in higher yields, decreased pesticide use, and increase farmer profits worldwide.
Tribe believes that opposition to GM crops in wealthy nations is costing populations in developing countries through food instability, and the success of crops such as GM eggplants in Bangladesh in 2018 is limited because of anti-GM lobbies in European nations.
Tribe said that "people who have got plenty of food and have never experienced food insecurity can have the luxury of these sorts of vanities and it's not going to cost their lives".
There are many common misconceptions about GMOs and their implications for human health.
The majority (73%) of participants in the University of Colorado studies who opposed GMOs said that their greatest concern was safety and health problems when eating genetically modified food; other reasons for opposition were cited as environmental, animal welfare, or social concerns.
For opponents who are concerned about the health implications of eating genetically modified food, the primary concerns are that GMO food will have different nutritional content, cause more allergic responses, have an increased likelihood of toxicity, or transfer of unnatural genetic material into the body.
The scientific consensus among food and genetics researchers is that GMOs are safe to eat and pose no more risk than traditional food sources.
While Tribe said that there are "certainly reasons to be concerned so things don't go wrong" in the production of GMOs, the international regulation on these crops is extremely heavy and he said there are no well-founded scientific arguments against their use.
Over the period from 2001 to 2010, the European Union invested more than 300 million euros ($477 million) in research to test the safety of GM crops and concluded in a report that GMOs were no more risky for human health than crops that were genetically altered through selective breeding.
The concerns about the toxicity of GMOs appear to stem from one study observing the effects of eating GMO potatoes among rats, published in 1999. The researchers found that feeding one type of GM potato to rats resulted in an adverse effect to every organ within 10 days of feeding.
However, the study has since been criticised by expert panels of food scientists for its flawed design; for example, the GMO potatoes that were used were never sold commercially and were actually the product of a research project.
Studies have found that toxic build-up over generations from consuming GMOs is also unlikely; research has been conducted with both GM corn and potatoes in rats and found that there is no suggestion that offspring can inherit genetic disease or toxicity over multiple generations.
Worries that GMOs have the ability to alter genetic material in human bodies (mutagenicity) also appear to be unfounded, with studies finding that modified DNA behaves exactly like unmodified DNA in the body after consumption.
Are there problems with GMOs that people should be aware of?
The farming of GM crops is often considered unsustainable in terms of its environmental impact because it has the potential to create genetically altered "super weeds" through a process called gene flow, which is caused by pollen transfer between GM crops and native weeds.
Gene flow can disrupt natural environments and increase the need for novel herbicides in farming.
However, the Royal Society notes that the environmental problems such as a reduction in native insect diversity and herbicide overuse by GM crops are also seen in non-GM farming.
"There are legitimate questions and practical problems to be addressed — but they're not all that different from existing non-GMO crops that are similar," said Tribe.