Why rational argument fails the genetic modification (GM) debate

Lucy Mallinson, Jean Russell, D.D. Cameron, Jurriaan Ton, Peter Horton, Margo Barker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Genetic modification (GM) of crops provides a methodology for the agricultural improvements needed to deliver global food security. However, public opposition to GM-food is great. The debate has tended to risk communication, but here we show through study of a large nationally representative sample of British adults that public acceptance of GM-food has social, cultural and affective contexts. Regression models showed that metaphysical beliefs about the sanctity of food and an emotional dislike of GM-food were primary negative determinants, while belief in the value of science and favourable evaluation of the benefits-to-risks of GM-food were secondary positive determinants. Although institutional trust, general knowledge of the GM-food debate and belief in the eco-friendliness of GM-food were all associated with acceptance, their influence was minor. While a belief in the sanctity of food had a direct inverse effect on GM acceptance, belief in the value of science was largely mediated through favourable perception of benefits-to-risks. Furthermore, segmentation analysis demonstrated that anxiety about GM-food had social and cultural antecedents, with white men being least anxious and older vegetarian women being most anxious. Rational argument alone about the risks and benefits of GM-food is unlikely to change public perceptions of GM-technology.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1145-1161
Number of pages17
JournalFood Security
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018


  • Genetic modification debate
  • Attitudinal survey
  • Rationality
  • Affect
  • Food


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