‘An Angel or the Devil in sheep’s clothing’


Genetic Engineering is one of the most contentious topics. Supporters believe that GM food is an innovation that is set to fight the worlds’ enemy number one ‘food insecurity’ whilst for opponents it is a dangerous wolf that is yet to reveal its wicked nature. Considering the heated debates surrounding this subject, it is important to explore the factors that influence people’s perceptions towards GM foods.

GM food and Food security

Genetically Modified foods: These are foods produced from plants and animals which have had their genetic make-up altered in the lab in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. Scientists transfer a gene from another organism into a plant’s DNA to give it new desirable characteristic (16)

Food security: is defined as condition that exists when all people, always, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (7).

Four dimensions of food security emerge from this definition, namely, availability, accessibility, stability and utilization. Over the years, these dimensions have come under threat but scientists based on robust evidence  claim GM technology is the only solution to food challenges.

gm-crops-for-long-term-food-security-14-638 “unless we embrace GM technology, there is no way that we will be able to feed an expanding population ” (6)

The creation of super varieties which are 50% more productive than the convectional crops are necessary for the growing population which will require 70% more food by 2050 (6). news

Those arguing against GM foods underscore that biotechnology and GM foods create conditions of hunger, poverty and even famine. Opponents argue that food insecurity and malnutrition are not a function of unavailability but rather lack of access to food fuelled by the current unfair food distribution system (16).

Factors influencing public opinion on GM foods?

Social context

In developed countries like US technology is valued and encouraged but GM technology especially in Europe is accompanied with doubt (12). In the US GM foods entered the grain supply chains without raising major public concern but met considerable opposition in Europe (7). Public concerns about the perceived risks to humans and environment, resulted in the European Union imposing restrictive regulations GM crops in Europe  (7).

The situation is different for developing countries, millions of people live in abject poverty and in such a context, people look at GM foods as a beacon of hope for the future. GM advocates emphasise the potential benefits to society via reduction of hunger and malnutrition and the promotion of health (10). This leads to positive public opinion towards GM foods.

The media
Media has a significant impact on public opinion formation in cases where public knowledge is low. Vivid negative images foster fearful risk perceptions and attitude towards science (9). GMO opposition includes vivid images (12). Google search of ‘GMOs’ yields numerous images of syringe injected tomatoes, orange hybrids and apples. This evokes fears of how GM technology might produce unnatural results.

The image below shows how pictures are used to influence public perception.



Trust in the authorities and controllers of GM technology plays an important role in determining consumer reaction (12). Food scandals such as the mad cow disease tarnished the image of authorities in Europe (13). This led to strong distrust and caused people to think that firms and public authorities sometimes disregard certain health risks to protect certain economic or political interests.
However, willingness to rely on policies and decisions of agencies and social trust has been found to be an important factor enhancing positive attitude to GM technology (12). Consumers  in the US trust agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) responsible for evaluating GM foods, public health safety. As a result, GM foods are widely accepted in the US than in Europe were trust in public authorities is lower.

Cultural context

Ethical concerns appear to be greater for genetic engineering than for other technological hazards (13). For instance, the notion of ‘playing God’ has a great influence on people’s attitudes ((2). Because of this belief, the Scottish Anglican church considers GM foods to be morally disgusting.

‘The survival of mankind will depend to a large extent on the ability of people who think differently to act together.’ (8)

To solve the problem of food insecurity, this quote emphasises the need to understand different culture, beliefs and ideas and in cooperate them in decision making on GM foods.

Despite its promise to bring significant benefits to society, public acceptance of GM foods has been a mixed bag of positive and negative views. Several factors which include how a society sees technology, the role of the media and stakeholders as well as culture can either lead to public opinions in favour of or against GM foods. Hence considerable efforts should be directed towards understanding the underlying factors that shape people’s attitudes and opinions if sound decision making is to be made for GM technology.


1.  Balasubramanian, D., 2001. PH—postharvest technology: physical properties of raw cashew nut. Journal of Agricultural Engineering Research, 78(3), pp.291-297.

  1. Blancke, S., Van Breusegem, F., De Jaeger, G., Braeckman, J. and Van Montagu, M., 2015. Fatal attraction: the intuitive appeal of GMO opposition. Trends in plant science, 20(7), pp.414-418.

  2. Brune, P.D., Culler, A.H., Ridley, W.P. and Walker, K., 2013. Safety of GM crops: compositional analysis.

  3. Costanigro, M. and Lusk, J.L., 2014. The signalling effect of mandatory labels on genetically engineered food. Food Policy, 49, pp.259-267.

  4. Finucane, M.L., 2002. Mad cows, mad corn and mad communities: the role of socio-cultural factors in the perceived risk of genetically-modified food. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 61(1), pp.31-37.

  5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016,

  6. Grossman, M.R. and Endres, A.B., 2000. Regulation of genetically modified organisms in the European Union. American Behavioral Scientist, 44(3), pp.378-434.

  7. Hofstede, G., 1984. Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values (Vol. 5). sage.

  8. (

  9. Iyengar, S. and Kinder, D.R., 2010. News that matters: Television and American opinion. University of Chicago Press.

  10. Isserman, A.M., 2001. Genetically modified food: Understanding the societal dilemma. American Behavioral Scientist, 44(8), pp.1225-1232.

  11. Lull, R.B. and Scheufele, D.A., 2017. Understanding and Overcoming Fear of the Unnatural in Discussion of GMOs. The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication, p.409.

  12. Parul Goyal and Stuti Gurtoo, 2011, Factors Influencing Public Perception: Genetically Modified Organisms, GMO Biosafety Research, Vol 2, No.1 1-11 (10.5376/gmo.2011.02.0001)

  13. Salamone, F., Galvano, F. and Li Volti, G., 2010. Treating fatty liver for the prevention of cardiovascular diseases. Hepatology, 52(3), pp.1174-1175.

  14. Tan, J., Campbell, D. and Mehr, S., 2012. Food protein–induced enterocolitis syndrome in an exclusively breast-fed infant—an uncommon entity. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 129(3), p.873.

  15. World Health Organization, 2016, http://wwwwhoint/foodsafety/areas