While top-tier media outlets are generally unanimous in considering genetically modified organisms as safe, the discussion on social media continues to be polarised and to feature many conspiracy theories. Analysing a sample of the debate on Twitter, we found that the traditional approaches in science communication have been largely ineffective in navigating public perceptions towards more scientifically informed views.

Much like vaccination and climate change, genetically modified food has been riven by controversies and conspiracy theories despite the availability of definitive scientific evidence. In fact, the gap between citizens and scientists in seeing GM foods as safe constitutes the largest opinion difference between the public and scientific community, according to Pew Research Center’s recent poll on “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society”.

As per usual, the disparity between the public and the scientists’ perception is most evident in the US: just 37% of US citizens believe that it is safe to eat GM foods, compared to 88% of American scientists. It has also been established that, quite naturally, the most passionate opponents of GMO have a shakier understanding of food science.

Academics and communication professionals have framed the problem as part of the “the deficit model” of science communication which suggests that communication techniques should focus on improving the transmission of information from experts to the public. Thus, scientists and science communicators seek the solution in explaining the scientific evidence in a more accessible manner, assuming that facts would ultimately convince people to update their opinions.

In practice, such an approach has been ineffective. Surveys have demonstrated that communicating more scientific evidence about GMOs to the public doesn’t affect its opinions: consumers are usually less likely to let any facts change their mind when they’re passionate about a certain topic. Constraint-satisfaction neural network models in psychology have shown that beliefs tend to persevere even after evidence for their initial formulation has been invalidated by new evidence.

Food for debate

The media conversation around GMOs has intensified due to a number of market factors, most notably the consumers’ perception of the “naturalness” of food, which has evolved from a focus on sanitation to added ingredients like preservatives, flavours and sweeteners. The ever-increasing health awareness among consumers, coupled with the rise of the organic food industry, has put the notion of “naturalness” in the centre of many debates around the food industry.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: Fast Food in the Media: The Rise of the Health-Conscious Consumer.

A 2018 study of the language of conspiracy theories in online discussions concluded that “[to]pics [such as] “big pharma,” “vaccines,” and “GMO,” for example, decry the corruption of health services while promoting the virtues of a “natural” lifestyle.”

Many consumers perceive GM food as “unnatural” because they perceive genetic engineering as meddling with naturally occurring biological processes. The line of argument is that if the food is “unnatural”, it must be bad for our health or at least not as healthy as “natural” food. In the US, this view has been reinforced by organisations such as the Organic Consumers Association, Greenpeace and Union of Concerned Scientists.

Unlike vaccination and climate change, support or scepticism about GMOs don’t fall along familiar political fault lines and is not divided by the traditional liberal-conservative opposition. Attitudes towards GMOs tie to individual concerns about the relationship between food and well-being, with young adults being more likely to have negative opinions than older adults.

But just like vaccination and climate change, many consumers think that there’s a disagreement in the scientific community. Similarly, many outlets have framed the conversation around GMOs as a binary debate with pro- and contra-perspectives in a bid to be “balanced” and “objective”, creating the impression that there is a real debate among scientists.

This trend has been fortified after the 2012 Séralini affair – the controversy surrounding the publication and retraction of a journal article by French molecular biologist Gilles-Éric Séralini, an activist professor and the face of the anti-GMO industry.

The article claimed that the use of GMOs leads to adverse health consequences, linking genetically engineered crops with cancer. Séralini allowed journalists to read the paper before an official press conference under the condition that they won’t report on responses by other scientists. The subsequent media coverage focused on a link between GMOs and cancer, and that conspiracy has persisted ever since, even though the article was quickly discredited and retracted.

In this regard, the 2012 Séralini paper played the same role in the GMOs debate as the 1998 Andrew Wakefield study linking vaccines with autism played in the vaccination debate. Both studies were initially picked up by the media as presenting a legitimate scientific perspective.

For more on this topic, read our analysis: Vaccination in the Media: An Ongoing Immunisation Against Misinformation.

Anti-GMO activists claim that the retraction of Séralini’s paper was part of an attempt to conceal the truth in order to defend corporate interests. The corporate push for GMO has aroused great suspicion: opponents think that agricultural corporations deliberately cause food shortages to promote the use of GMOs and collude with government agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration and scientific societies like the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The distrust in corporations has been tied to concerns about the motives of research scientists: around three-in-ten Americans say that research findings of GMOs are often influenced by the researchers’ desires to help their industries.

Meanwhile, a study of Chinese media found that the news articles that were opposed to GMOs promoted conspiracy theories “including the view that the West was using genetic engineering to establish global control over agriculture and that GM products were instruments for genocide”. The problem was tackled by China’s government which launched a media campaign battling the wave of negative publicity.

Organic food marketing

The negative sentiment around GMOs has been supported by brands which centre their marketing strategies around “organic” and “natural” food. A popular case study in communications theory is Chipotle‘s announcement that it would cook with only non-GMO ingredients, claiming that GMOs damage the environment, citing one questionable study.

Chipotle generated a media maelstrom, sparking fierce criticism among high-profile outlets, which wrote that the company has embraced the fearmongering of some food, environmental and health activists, and that it deceives the public by misrepresenting the science surrounding a poorly understood innovation.

A Washington Post article titled “Corporate irresponsibility over GMOs” was notably harsh, claiming that Chipotle, alongside companies such as Whole Foods, are doing real social harm by polluting public discourse on scientific matters: “They are legitimizing an approach to science that elevates Internet medical diagnosis, social media technological consensus and discredited studies in obscure journals.”

Since then, non-GMO marketing strategies have suffered by even heavier criticisms in top-tier publications, which generally dismiss organic food as an effective form of premium branding. When commenting on such branding, many outlets cite a four-year Stanford University research which found that organic products “have no significant advantage over conventional foods, even though consumers pay more for them”.

Companies on the table

We analysed the media conversation around GMOs from October 2018 to May 2019 in the top-tier English-language publications to find the most often mentioned companies:

Bayer, which acquired Monsanto for $63 billion in 2018 and became the biggest player in the seeds and pesticides market, has been in the centre of the recent discussion due to the lawsuits over Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup weed killer which allegedly caused cancer. A California jury that awarded a couple $2 billion in punitive damages after finding that sustained exposure to Roundup led to their cancer diagnoses.

Part of Bayer’s response was to argue that studies have established that Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate is safe, while the World Health Organization’s cancer agency said the weedkiller is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The company said it plans to invest $5.6 billion over the next decade in developing new weedkillers.

In the meantime, the media conversation around the other companies in our list has circled around their research and business development. DuPont recently won the final international regulatory approval needed for a global launch of a new line of genetically engineered soybeans. BASF decided to pursue genetic plant breeding outside the EU after the bloc ruled the technology should be regulated like GMO.

None of the most often mention companies’ spokespeople was among the central participants in the media conversation:

Bill Gates, who is a central figure in topics ranging from Alzheimer’s to vaccination, is seen as an authority in the context of GMOs as well. He has often called GMOs “perfectly healthy” and has emphasised their role as an important tool in the fight against world hunger and malnutrition. He recently tweeted that often lost in the debate about GMOs is the need for poor farmers to have choices in the face of hard conditions.

His notable presence in the media discussion is also due to the fact that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the most prominent donor organisations in the GMO field, making public calls for GMOs to be considered part of food security solutions.

Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was quoted in relation to the GMO policy of Donald Trump, whom we didn’t include in our research sample in order to cut through the media noise.

The president recently signed an executive order directing federal agencies to simplify the regulatory landscape for GMOs entering the food supply, and Jaffe said the impact of the order will depend on the details of how it’s carried out by federal agencies: simply deregulating could make people lose confidence in GMOs.

The only prominent corporate spokesperson in our sample, Joe Merschman, was mentioned in relation to the DuPont’s regulatory approval for a global launch of a new line of genetically engineered soybeans. Merschman’s company MS Technologies developed the soy, with journalists quoting his statements and highlighting that the product would shake up the $40 billion US soybean market, half of which is dominated by Bayer’s Xtend brand.

The presence of political figures goes to show that although GMO attitudes aren’t divided by the traditional liberal-conservative oppositions, there is a significant political angle to the debate. For example, the UK ambassador to the US addressed opponents of Brexit who have argued that Britain’s markets would be opened to more GMOs coming from the US after Brexit: “You have been presented with a false choice: either stick to EU directives, or find yourselves flooded with American food of the lowest quality.”

On social media

While the high-profile media outlets we studied are unanimous about GMOs’ safety, the real battle of opinions takes place on Twitter. We analysed the Twitter discussion in the last year and found that the negative sentiment towards GMOs dominates decisively.

The word cloud below displays the most commonly used words in the debate during the past year:

Most Twitter users focused on communicating the supposed benefits of GMO-free products, as exemplified by the frequent use of the words “organic”, “natural” and “GMO-free”. Users who promoted such opinions included health and wellness influencers as well as brands which rely on social media to sell their product lines.

Many of them didn’t criticise the use of GMOs explicitly, like Chipotle did in the aforementioned case study, but rather implied that GMO-free products are better by frequently using words such as “health”, “healthy” and “good”. A more limited amount of users shared that GMOs could have negative effects on human health and the environment.

News around Monsanto generated many GMO-related tweets with negative sentiment. The company featured as the most often used hashtag in the discussion after #gmo and #gmos:

The company has been vilified by a large number of users, and the legal case against it has been largely viewed as a confirmation of the theories that GMOs are bad for human health or that it causes cancer: the hashtags #health and #cancer were frequently used in close proximity to #monsanto.

In addition to our one-year analysis, we studied a sample of 12 762 tweets from 8 to 17 June, using social network analysis, an analytical method which examines the structures and patterns of the relationships between participants in a social network by looking at the ‘nodes’ (or ‘vertices’), representing the Twitter users participating in the discussion, and the ‘ties’ (or ‘edges’) between them, representing actions such as retweets, mentions, or replies.

One of the aims of social network analysis is to identify the influencers in a particular network, with “influence” broadly defined as “the potential of an action of a user to initiate a further action by another user” (Leavitt, Burchard, Fisher, & Gilbert 2009).

In this regard, we focused on the vertices (users) with the highest in-degree centrality score. In-degree centrality determines the number of incoming ties, i.e. the number of mentions and replies to a particular Twitter account in the network. The higher the in-degree centrality score, the more influential a particular node is.

The most influential Twitter account in our research sample was the Alliance for Science (@ScienceAlly), a global agricultural communications platform which aims to improve understanding of science-based agricultural technology.

The account focuses on pro-GMO messaging: for instance, it tweeted that gene editing can make a significant contribution to global food security, in part by improving the “orphan crops” that are locally important to good nutrition. It also shared that gene editing holds the key to breeding crops that can feed the world’s expanding population without bringing more land into production.

However, the majority of the most influential accounts belong to GMO opponents. Friends of the Earth (@foe_us), a network of environmental organisations, has been promoting the view that GMO food-tech items are not the solution to the environmental and public health issues we are facing and that consumers should have “real” food grown by “real” farmers to ensure a sustainable food system.

GM Watch (@GMWatch), an independent organisation, has dedicated itself to countering “the propaganda” of the biotech industry. Truthstream Media (@truthstreamnews) shares documentaries “exposing the hidden GMO dangers“, while the news magazine Non-GMO Report (@nongmoreport) reports on “the risks of GM foods“.

Anti-vaccination campaigner Jordan Sather (@Jordan_Sather_), who has amassed “hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions of content views” through his online media brand Destroying the Illusion, is also a prominent figure, highlighting that the vaccination and the GMO debates overlap when it comes to the spread of conspiracies.

The most influential corporate spokesperson in our sample was Robb Fraley (@RobbFraley), former chief technology officer at Monsanto, who tries to change consumer attitudes towards GMOs, prompting a rather mixed reaction due to Monsanto’s ongoing legal issues.

It’s interesting to note that the most influential brand in our sample – Impossible Foods (@ImpossibleFoods) is not one of the numerous brands claiming to offer GMO-free products but a producer of meat alternatives which tweets that GMOs are “the safest and most environmentally responsible option” for producing fake meat. Naturally, the brand’s messaging generates a heated exchange of polarised opinions from consumers and health influencers.

The analysis of the Twitter discussion corroborates that framing the GMOs’ perception problem as part of the “the deficit model” of science communication doesn’t work in practice: the users who try to persuade others by citing scientific evidence usually initiate even more heated objections.

Brands and science communicators shouldn’t focus only on explaining the scientific evidence in a more accessible manner, assuming that facts would ultimately convince people to update their opinions. Although providing evidence-based information is necessary, behavioural change is a complex process which entails more than having adequate knowledge about an issue, as communication research has demonstrated.

Thus, communication should include alternative strategies such as highlighting simple bottom-line meaning in addition to facts and details. Underlining the moral obligation to act as a member of a community and producing more emotionally compelling content would work well in an area which has the potential to face challenges like world hunger and malnutrition.