Transgenic Food -- the Science and the Psychology

09/20/2010 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After years of research, the FDA is holding final hearings before deciding whether to approve the first food produced by splicing the genes of one species into another, that could show up directly on your plate. Transgenic food, the scientists and advocates call it. Frankenfood, warn those opposed. The arguments before the agency will be about the facts, but underneath, this issue will be driven not only by those facts, but how those facts feel.

The case at hand is about salmon, but it has a lot to teach us about how society deals with most risk-related issues, so let's consider the two basic aspects of risk perception generally... the facts and the feelings. The facts are reasonably clear: Scientists figured out how to take a gene from a Chinook salmon, which grows really fast, and plug it into an Atlantic salmon, which is the principal salmon species sold today but which grows more slowly. Add a gene from a relative fish called the ocean pout that keeps the Chinook growth gene firing all the time, and you can get the Atlantic to grow to maturity much faster. Sounds simple, right? Salmon is salmon is salmon, right?

But imagine how you might feel if you sit down for dinner at a friend's house and, as the friend lays a juicy slab of salmon on your plate and garnishes it with a sprig of dill he says "It's transgenic"? Do you dig right in, or does a Q&A ensue, that might go something like this:

You: "With gene splicing they can mix anything they want together. The thing might have a gene from a walnut or a walrus or a watermelon. What about allergies?"

"No," your friend says, "it only has salmon genes. I checked it out."

"Yeah, but..." you add "...these genetically engineered salmon could interbreed with wild salmon, and then we're messing with nature."

"Which would definitely be bad," your friend replies, " but to eliminate that risk the transgenic salmon can only be sold as eggs, and the eggs will produce females that are sterile. So even if they get out, they can't breed. And the breeders have to raise the fish in tanks inland, away from rivers and the coast."

"Yeah, but..." you say. "I read that these things aren't labeled. The consumer has no choice. How do you know it's transgenic?"

"Actually, the store, labeled it voluntarily," your friend replies. "The Food and Drug Administration doesn't require a label on a food that is the same after genetic engineering as it was before. But the seller wants to sell it because they think this is a more sustainable way to grow fish that requires less fish food and energy and pollutes less, so they label it so we can decide for ourselves."

"Yeah, but," you say, again. (Your salmon is getting cold.) "I heard that the government won't release all the documents about how this genetically engineered fish is being created. Can we trust them?"

Your friend says that on the FDA website the agency explained that it regulates genetic modification of food the same way it regulates new pharmaceuticals, and to protect companies that invest billions developing new drugs, trade secrets are kept secret. (Like the formula for Coke.)

That's a lot of "Yeah, buts..." What's all that hesitation about? Do you have all the facts? No. Do you know all the details about the science of genetic modification? No. Do you have the time to get all the facts and the advanced degrees necessary to understand them? Of course not. It's dinner time! Then where do these fears come from?

We have to make choices like this, on the fly, all the time, so we have developed subconscious psychological/emotional filters by which we can take partial information and make a quick judgment about whether those clues suggest possible danger. GM food has several characteristics that, according to research on the psychology of risk perception, make some things feel scarier than others. It's human-made, and that makes it scarier than a risk that's natural. We're more afraid of what we can't detect with our own senses, and what we don't understand. That uncertainty makes things scarier. We more afraid of a risk if we're exposed involuntarily (which is why you complained about a lack of labeling). And we depend on the government to keep us safe, but if we don't trust the government, that lack of trust feeds greater worry (thus your complaints about the FDA keeping secrets).

None of this has anything to do with the fact that the transgenic salmon is 100% salmon, just with a shorter childhood. But the psychological lenses of risk perception mean that genetically modified food that is essentially identical to the natural kind, which offers the promise of more sustainable production of more protein at less cost, faces resistance from people who, as we all do to some degree, just naturally worry about risks that are human-made, hard to understand, invisible and undetectable, imposed on us, and from which a not-completely trusted bureaucracy is supposed to protect us.

The FDA will hear lots of factual arguments on this issue one way and the other, and try to make a ruling based on the science. But we live in a democracy, and the way a risk feels is as important, often more important, than the science as policy makers try to decide what to do. That may feel right, even though it might not produce polices that provide the most public and environmental benefit.