National Post

Psst. GMOs are scary. Pass it on

by Howard Fienberg
April 13, 2000

Europeans have been running scared for more than a year and a half from food tainted by genetic modification. Now, the fear appears to have crossed the ocean blue. Recent news reports have said a majority of Canadians is concerned about the safety of genetically modified (GM) food: "Consumers reject GM foods" (The Ottawa Citizen, Apr. 1) and "Canadians distrust the technology" (CBC Radio News, Apr. 3).

But are Canadians really so troubled? How does the media know Canadians are concerned? The polling firm Environics conducted a telephone survey for the Council of Canadians, an activist organization, arguing that three-quarters of Canadians worry about the safety of GM foods, based on a national extrapolation from this poll. As Jennifer Story of the Council put it, "People are talking about this, and they know more about it now."

One cannot easily substantiate Ms. Story's assertions, however, because there are problems with the Environics poll. The Council of Canadians carefully highlights the sample size (902 Canadians), the time period (Dec. 22 to Jan. 16) and the margin of error (+/- 3.3%) in the survey. The clincher, unreported in the media, was that the questions about GM food safety were only asked of respondents "somewhat or very familiar with" GM foods.

So how many Canadians are actually concerned about GM foods? Since the Council has yet to establish how many people were contacted in order to screen out this sample, nor the overall response rate, we have no clue. It could be that the 902 people were the most knowledgeable sub-set of a much larger sample. But it could also be that only a small number of the 902 were asked the detailed questions. With certainty, we know that 75% of the people Environics was able to contact who felt they knew about GM foods were concerned about them. But that is all we know.

Although public opinion surveying is a science, both methods and results can be manipulated to service certain ends. Given the overriding tendency of the media to turn the GM food issue into a scare story, perhaps all this poll indicates is that those who are learning about GM foods are not really getting the whole picture. Foods are being genetically modified for relatively sensible reasons, like to reduce pesticide usage or to prevent blindness by adding vitamin A to rice (a staple food in Asia). The esteemed National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. affirmed April 5 that there is no scientific evidence of harm from GM foods to either the environment or human health.

It did, however, note some potential reasons for concern. And concern, as opposed to fear, calls for appropriate oversight and evaluation of both negative and positive potentialities.

In a world of general public ignorance of true science, reporting claims of how many Canadians are frightened becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- it has the effect of convincing others that they should also be frightened. It creates a peculiar echo chamber, where the public gets scared because they are informed that they are supposed to be scared. Fear by false peer pressure cannot substitute for science and fact. If such fear supplants good judgment, Canada and the rest of the world may well be deprived of the vast benefits genetically modified crops have to offer.

Howard Fienberg, a Canadian, is Research Analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit non-partisan organization researching science and the media.

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