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  • Dr Michael Anthoniou (Reader in Molecular Genetics, King’s College, London)

  • Hilary Sutcliffe (Director of SocietyInside)

Date: 24th September 2015


Raise the question of GM technology and there will always be a range of strong emotions, from fear and disgust through to a conviction that it’s the silver bullet to deliver food security for the whole world.

Such an emotional reaction can make it difficult to have sensible, informed and respectful discussions about the technology. One way to try and take the ‘heat’ out of talking about the pros and cons of GM is to adopt the following three principles. The first is ask the right question. Instead of ‘what problem can GM technology solve?’ ask, ‘what are the potential solutions to the problem of X (e.g. hunger or climate change)?’ The second is to remember that there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ technologies, just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ applications of it. And the third is to assess the independence of evidence in order to trust it.

Golden Rice (a GM crop biofortified to provide Vitamin A) is one example of how asking the right question is important. Golden rice addresses a perceived problem – that people lack Vitamin A. It doesn’t address (and arguably distracts from) the underlying problem of why people are unable to afford nutritious, culturally appropriate food.

To ensure GM is used responsibly, the precautionary principle (‘better safe than sorry’) should be applied, along with dismantling barriers to independent research. Also crucial are the five ‘principles for responsible innovation’: Innovation for social benefit; responsiveness to social, ethical, environmental, economic risks or impacts; stakeholder participation; governance and organisational accountability and ‘radical transparency’ and disclosure.

Some scientists and activists argue that GM’s promise is not supported by basic science or real-world experience, and point to an increase in herbicide and pesticide use on GM crops. Others cite evidence that GM will provide food security for all.

Given all this contradictory evidence from what seems like equally trustworthy sources, how can we decide what we think (or feel) about GM? In the face of such confusion, we revert to our fundamental beliefs. The problem is that those beliefs are often founded on cognitive bias.

Confirmation bias means we only hear what we want to hear to confirm our existing beliefs. We ignore, dismiss or vilify anything that contradicts this. The backlash effect means when we hear views that are particularly compelling in challenging us, we twist them so they support our perspective and cement our sense of certainty. And wilful blindness means we choose to stick our fingers in our ears and ignore anything that contradicts our cherished belief.

If cognitive biases on all sides are running the show, how can society decide how to respond to the many challenges associated with food security and sustainability? Keeping our biases in mind, asking the right question, debating the evidence, impacts and trade-offs might just help us come to an objective and trustworthy view.

This summary draws partly on a blog by Hilary Sutcliffe, Director of MATTER, who was one of the speakers at this Food Talks. The full blog is available here.

Further reading:

GMO: Myths and Truths report (2015)

Farmer to farmer: The truth about GM Crops documentary by Michael Hart

Bad Ideas? An Arresting History of Our Inventions by Robert Winston


Dr Michael Antoniou | Reader in Molecular Genetics

Michael has an academic background in biochemistry and molecular biology. He is currently a Reader in Molecular Genetics at Kings College London School of Medicine.

Hilary Sutcliffe | Director of SocietyInside

Hilary has a background in innovation and technology. In 2015 she was Director of the think tank, Matter, specialising in enabling responsible innovation. She has worked with the World Economic Forum and in 2017 became the Director of SocietyInside, a think tank examining how technology and innovation can be used for social good.