The Pew Research Group recently released the results of a new public opinion survey about GMOs—a follow-up to their widely covered 2015 poll that attempted to examine how public opinion is out of synch with the prevailing “scientific consensus.”
Among the more interesting findings is that many Americans do not fully trust scientists—and especially the media—on the topic of GMOs. That’s unfortunate given how important public support is for science and science-based public policy.
But this may not be surprising given the ways that powerful scientific and media outlets have at times misled the public and misrepresented the scientific discourse. This includes Pew’s continued assertions of a “scientific consensus” on GMO safety.
Pew’s newest survey found that only 19 percent of the public thinks scientists have a good understanding of the health effects of eating GMOs, and only 14 percent believe “almost all” scientists think GMOs are safe to eat. This is at odds with the “consensus among scientific experts that GM foods were safe,” Pew asserts.
Curiously, though the work of Pew Research Group is rooted in polling data, it conducted no surveys of scientific experts to support its assertion of a “scientific consensus.” Rather, it cites a 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, which had only 20 authors, only one of whom was cited as a specialist in food safety.
The National Academies report did not do a survey of scientists or attempt to assess expert opinion. It did not use the word “consensus” in its reporting on food safety and, in fact, noted the importance of avoiding “sweeping statements.” The report did state it found no evidence of food safety problems, but that’s not the same as saying GMOs are safe or, to be sure, that all “scientific experts” think GMOs are safe. (It’s also notable that the National Academies’ report has been criticized on a number of fronts, including for a variety of undisclosed conflicts of interests that invariably introduced bias into its report.)
In direct contradiction to assertions that the debate on the safety of GMOs is over, hundreds of scientists and scholars have gone on the record, in a peer-reviewed journal, to assert that there is “no consensus” on the safety of GMOs.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that Pew has imposed this narrative on to the GMO debate. In January 2015, Pew issued the results of another survey, which found that 88 percent of “scientists” thought GMOs were safe compared to only 37 percent of the public.
This finding played into one of the dominant talking point of the biotechnology industry: comparing GMO critics to climate-change skeptics, saying both are out of touch with science.
Buried in an appendix of the 2015 survey, Pew clarified that the “scientists” it surveyed were actually defined as “U.S.-based members” of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS)—an advocacy group whose membership is “open to all,” not just scientists.
Pew does not mention that AAAS, which helped fund the Pew study, promotes GMOs as being safe. Its recent presidents include leading GMO promoter Nina Federoff and Barbara Schaal, a biologist whose work is supported by Monsanto. Asking this group’s members what they think about GMOs is not that different from asking NRA members what they think about the safety of guns—it’s not a neutral sample.
A few months after it released these findings, Pew quietly clarified that only 43 percent of the “scientists” it surveyed were “working PhD scientists,” and they “may or may not have specialized expertise in the specific topics of the survey such as GMOs…”
Pew’s misleading survey data contributes to an unhelpful narrative that scientists have all the answers, and the uninformed masses simply need to be educated about the safety and benefits of GMOs. This framing fails to acknowledge that scientific opinion is actually divided—and that scientific opinion alone does not dictate whether we should use this technology in our food system.