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It’s Not Just About “The Science”

Credit: Mopic/Adobe

Credit: Mopic/Adobe

By Rachel A. Ankeny & Heather J. Bray

Female scientists and health professionals have revealed that opposition to genetically modified food is less about “the science” and more about perceived conflicts with personal values.

Opposition to a technology is often thought to be caused by a lack of understanding of the underlying science. In response, scientists and science communicators often explain the scientific details in the hope that these facts will persuade people to change their behaviours or beliefs.

Despite attempts to move away from this “deficit model” of science communication, it continues to persist, in part because we still don’t really understand how people interact with science in their everyday lives. Everyday decision-making that requires consideration of scientific evidence, risks and benefits is not usually included when scientific engagement is measured or studied (see Searle’s 2014 report on how Australians engage with science at https://tinyurl.com/k77ef74). Another complicating factor is that people have multiple roles that affect the ways in which they make decisions: as citizen, consumer, scientist and carer, to name a few.

Even the very idea that there is a single body of knowledge known as “science” is problematic. Scientific disciplines have different ways of looking at key concepts such as risk, sometimes bringing scientists into opposition with each other. For example, people working to develop genetically modified (GM) crops, such as molecular biologists, are more accepting of the technology than those working in more “holistic” disciplines (https://tinyurl.com/y7unqoqn). The Public Health Association of Australia’s policy on GM foods (https://tinyurl.com/

y9tcbmhr) states that the organisation will continue to advocate for state-based moratoria on the production of GM crops because it is concerned about the risks to human health and a lack of evidence of safety.

Our recent qualitative research on women’s attitudes to GM food attempts to unpack some of these issues (https://tinyurl.com/y7zj9y9w). Previous research had shown that women are generally more negative about GM foods, and suggested that this was because they often have less education in science, tend to be more involved with food provisioning, and have caring roles that tend to make them more concerned about food risks.

Our research participants included women with a range of educational backgrounds in science – from high school science to PhD training – and involved women with various household structures and carer roles (including parents, grandparents and those caring for older relatives). We specifically recruited plant scientists involved in the development of GM crops as well as women in health science professions. We used semi-scripted focus group discussions to collect data, which we analysed thematically.

All of the women in our study preferred food that they described as “natural” (by which they meant unprocessed), locally produced, healthy and nutritious, and free from additives. The plant scientists did not view food made using GM techniques to be in conflict with any of these categories, and were not worried about eating GM food, but nearly all of the other women in the study – even the highly science-educated women who worked in the health sciences – considered GM food to be in conflict with these core food values.

The multiple roles that the women played influenced their choices, with caring roles particularly important. Price, familiarity of brands, allergies and other special dietary needs were also cited as important factors when choosing food.

Although all of the women with higher levels of science education used evidence to support their positions on whether to consume GM foods, they had very different perceptions of risk. These are likely to result from the women’s different disciplinary backgrounds. The plant scientists said that lack of evidence of harm meant that GM food was safe for them to eat, but the women in health sciences said that a lack of evidence of safety made them cautious. For women without high levels of science education, GM foods presented unknown risks, and as such were to be avoided.

Regardless of discipline, all of the women with high levels of science education viewed GM foods and crops in terms of broader issues in agriculture and food production rather than focusing on “the science” of how GM crops are produced.

For the plant scientists, support of the technology was linked to its potential to do social good or support environmental sustainability. They suggested that education was part of the solution to public perceptions of GM crops, particularly because they viewed GM as an extension of the long history of human manipulation of plants.

The health scientists emphasised the idea that the risks were “unknown”, in part because our understanding of molecular biology continues to evolve (e.g. epigenetics). The fact that no independent safety testing of GM foods is required for approval in Australia was also problematic for them. They also expressed other concerns about GM, including the effects on farmers’ abilities to save seeds for reuse, the involvement of large corporations, and environmental impacts from the use of agricultural chemicals in farming systems.

These findings highlight that both product (what is in the food) and process (how it is made) are important for the women in our study, although Australia’s current labelling regime doesn’t mark out the latter category with regard to GM use. The women in plant sciences were as concerned about making “good” food choices as the other women in our study, with some growing their own food, and talked about their concerns about the environmental impacts of their food purchases.

Our study reinforces other research that challenges the deficit model of science communication. It shows that high levels of “science” education and knowledge do not necessarily generate more acceptance of technologies, particularly genetic modification of foods and crops.

Although it may not be surprising that women working on the development of GM crops were mostly in favour of GM foods, our findings reveal new information about how scientific information is being used by women with different types of science backgrounds to make everyday decisions. The contrast between women with health/nutrition backgrounds and those with molecular biology backgrounds in their use of evidence is particularly notable: they took different approaches to risk, respectively stressing a lack of evidence of safety and a lack of evidence of harm. This difference reinforces the idea that knowledge alone does not shape views on GM food, but that evidential standards and other values are critical.

As researchers keen to foster engagement around the role of science and technology in food production, we feel that this research provides several critical lessons for scientists and others seeking to engage with the public.

First, everyday decisions that involve science do not occur in a vacuum; further, the multiple roles that each of us plays also influence our choices.

Second, there is no singular body of knowledge called “science” with which people engage. Helping people to navigate different disciplinary approaches to risk is particularly difficult yet important.

Third, one of the negative consequences of the deficit model has been to limit conversations about GM foods to how they are made, what is in the final product, and how risk is assessed by regulators, rather than discussion of broader issues such as how this technology fits within economic, social and political domains. The tendency to adopt this type of simplistic framing was particularly frustrating for the women in our study with science backgrounds. They expressed their desires for much more sophisticated conversations about GM food than those currently taking place in the public domain, particularly in the context of our evolving understandings of molecular biology.

Most importantly, our research points to food values that are shared whether women eat or avoid GM foods. Shared values are an important foundation for engagement, and we believe that our work can contribute to the development of better engagement strategies across different sciences and sectors of the public.


Prof Rachel A. Ankeny and Dr Heather J. Bray are part of the Food Values Research Group in the School of Humanities at The University of Adelaide (https://arts.adelaide.edu.au/history/food-values/).