I bet you’re all sick of hearing about genetically modified (GM) food and biotechnology. However, I think it is a great example of how science is portrayed in the media, and how people respond to this, so bear with me.
I have studied GM foods to some degree, and have a basic understanding of the pros and cons. I’m not going to express my bias, I’m not here to rant. Instead I will consider both angles of the GM debate, and how they were/are portrayed in the media.
The major problem people have with GMO (genetically modified organisms), is that we humans cannot see into the future and what the long term affects will be with such organisms. However, GMOs have the potential to rapidly improve the way we do things – such as increase yields in farm systems and produce more food to feed the world, as long as there are minimal risks to the general public.
Not everyone in the public has had the opportunity to learn about GM foods at a secondary or tertiary level, and therefore the media has the opportunity to shape people’s perceptions of this science. It has become a controversial science where ‘natural’ things are distorted into foreign species with messed-up DNA, or where sceptics are labelled “science illiterate” – depends what you are reading.
Here is what Greenpeace has to say:
So how did GM foods become so publicly contested? How did the controversy begin?
Well, basically the media had a large role in this by portraying GM science as a war between competing sides. In the red corner: pro-GM anddddd in the blue corner: anti-GM. Not only this, but governments were trying to sway voters by taking a particular side on the issue.
It is interesting to see how the media reports GM issues. British newspapers can even be categorised into pro- or anti- GM foods. The Times and The Sun are pro-GM, The Guardian and Daily Mail are anti-GM. The Times argue that resistance to GM foods is due to a deficit in scientific knowledge (that is, the public doesn’t see enough scientific data and hence oppose it based on fear, emotion or tradition). The Guardian considered the issue from a wider perspective – socially and politically and considered how GM foods would affect companies, the economy and so on. Emotion often played into this too.
You might be thinking, so what about Australia? Well, a study in South Australia found through survey data that an increase in knowledge of farmers about biotechnology did not necessarily indicate a more favourable view of biotechnology. Interesting, huh? So apparently, re-informing or informing the public may not be the right tactic. Attitudes may already be set in stone. Perhaps playing toward emotion will work? Maybe we need a brand new communication tactic if we are to shape new attitudes – depends what your goal is.
1. What is your position on GM foods and biotechnology? What led you to take that stance: education, opinions around you, the media?
2. What do you think is a good method to gain support for GM, or perhaps you’d prefer to discourage the notion of GM?
Augoustinos, M., Crabb, S., & Shepherd, R. (2010). Genetically modified food in the news: media representations of the GM debate in the UK. Public Understanding of Science, 19, 98-114.