Young people in America, according to a new Pew Research Center survey, are the most likely to think organic foods are healthier and that genetically modified foods are bad. While splurging on organic avocados is unlikely to do more damage than put a dent in your wallet, anti-GMO fear mongering threatens to actually stymie the progress of science.
That’s right, millennials — not stodgy old guard Conservatives — are responsible for fuelling this particular crusade against science.
Along with vaccines and climate change, food is one of the areas where the public’s opinion is most divorced from that of science. According to another Pew Research Center survey last year, 88% of scientists believe that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, but only 37% of the public does. The new survey found that just 35% of the public said they trust scientists “a lot” when it comes to the health effects of genetically modified foods.
Capitalising on that public opinion, the anti-GMO movement has gained considerable steam in recent years, sometimes acting so aggressively that it prevents scientists who study genetically modified foods from actually doing their jobs. As our eating habits have gotten more health-conscious, they have also become more and more divorced from any scientific fact. The idea of splicing some fish genes with a tomato may sound kind of horrifying and gross, but the scientific consensus is that genetically modified foods are safe to eat.
This latest Pew survey suggests that there is a generation gap fanning those flames. A fifth of those under 30 feel not only that non-modified foods are better, but that modified varieties might lead to health problems, a view few scientists would endorse. A fourth also feel that modified foods might harm the environment. While it’s true certain applications of genetic modification, like gene drives, could have negative ecological effects, that’s an example of technology being misused, and says nothing about whether the technology itself is inherently bad.
The survey also pointed to some shifts in behavior overall. More than 60% of all age groups reported that they had recently bought organic foods and even among those over 65, 45% of seniors felt organic produce is healthier.
But the trend towards a distinctly anti-GMO sentiment among younger Americans is concerning. Genetically modified foods don’t just mean crops that grow bigger or produce more. Genetic modification offers the possibility of a food supply resistant to problems like blight that can better feed the global population. And that is something far too few Americans seem to have realised.