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The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture has been met with strong, often fierce opposition. Most citizens in EU member states do not approve either of GM crops or of the food that they are used to produce. Public opinion surveys show that many Europeans perceive GMOs as not useful (Eurobarometer, 2006) and risky, even though molecular biologists agree that “transgenic crops and their products are at least as safe for humans and the environment as crops developed by conventional methods” (Vasil, 2003). Even in the USA, where farmers have grown GM crops for more than a decade and where foodstuffs made from such crops have met little resistance, between 20% and 30% of the population harbour negative attitudes towards products that contain GM crops (IFIC, 2008). Moreover, some scientists and physicians also have negative attitudes towards GM crops, even though scientific risk assessments have proven that they cause no adverse health effects. What are the reasons for such hostility?

…it is puzzling that the application of GM technology in agriculture has caused such bitter political and ideological controversies in the first place

The most common explanation for the widespread opposition to GM crops is the generally slow rate at which the public accepts new technologies. In this sense, the fear of transgenic organisms can be compared with the resistance to the first vaccinations, which even triggered riots; or to the introduction of the automobile, which in some countries required a horse rider to go ahead of every car to warn pedestrians (Braun, 2002). Although these comparisons might be valid, reaction against technological progress cannot be the only explanation for anti-GM sentiment. Other new biotechnologies—for example, genome sequencing or medical technologies—are more likely to be perceived as acceptable and beneficial (Eurobarometer, 2006), but “in the case of GMOs […] opposition has been particularly strong and widespread” (Bonny, 2003).

Can anthropological approaches help to explain people's irrational reactions to GM crops and food?

Initially, the public fear of GMOs was attributed to a lack of biological knowledge among the populace and poor communication between scientists and the public (Braun, 2002), but sociological observations have proven this to be false (Bonny, 2003; Marris, 2001; Wynne, 2001). Other popular explanations include political and ideological issues (Harper, 2004; Vasil, 2003) as well as specific mechanisms of human risk perception (Bonny, 2003). Yet, although these observations can explain the current situation, it is puzzling that the application of GM technology in agriculture has caused such bitter political and ideological controversies in the first place. Why, despite any clear evidence, are GM crops deemed a major risk for human health and the environment?

Greenpeace founder member Patrick Moore told New Scientist magazine that, “we are entering an era now where pagan beliefs and junk science are influencing public policy” (Bond, 1999), whereas Nobel laureate James Watson has described fears of GMOs as a “dangerous religion” (Zagórski, 2008). On the basis of anthropological observations in the UK, sociologist Sarah Franklin at the London School of Economics has noted that the debate about GM food “reproduces the sensation that the food chain is currently a scene of crisis and confusion” and that GM “evokes a sense of loss of control” (Franklin, 2001). Polish molecular biologist Włodzimierz Zagórski has similarly called public attitudes towards GM crops and food a “modern food taboo” (Zagórski, 2006). Can anthropological approaches help to explain people's irrational reactions to GM crops and food? Do culture, myths and taboos have a role in addition to technological and political issues? To answer these questions, we need to look deeper into human history and the human psyche.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word taboo, which stems from the Tongan word tabu, means “a social or religious custom placing prohibition or restriction on a particular thing or person”. Although we might not be aware of them, taboos exist in all cultures, even modern democratic societies; some are based on ancient beliefs or practices, whereas others are still valid. Incest and cannibalism, for example, are common taboos for biological and social reasons: incest degenerates the gene pool, and banning cannibalism might have been an important factor in maintaining stable social groups when food was scarce. In Jewish and Muslim societies, the prohibition of the consumption of pig meat might have originated as an attempt to prevent the transmission of the parasitic trichina worm, and remains an important part of today's kosher and halal dietary rules despite the diminished threat from this parasite. Other taboos are the result of religious or philosophical beliefs or societal restrictions, such as vegetarianism, the restriction of sexual activities, offensive language or the exposure of body parts.

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British anthropologist Mary Douglas proposed one of the most commonly accepted theories about why taboos exist and how they arise. Douglas believed that the main role of society and culture is to impose order on the natural world by projecting cultural categories to classify and structure nature. By categorizing the universe, society also creates clear divisions, such as between human and nonhuman, female and male, holy and profane. As Douglas wrote, “ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience” (Douglas, 1966). Taboos are therefore explained by the human need to erect and maintain boundaries.

Taboos are […] explained by the human need to erect and maintain boundaries

A strict classification system has little room for ambiguity or for objects that do not fit neatly into categories, as these might challenge the prevailing order. As Douglas explained: “Danger lies in transitional states, simply because transition is neither one state nor the next, it is undefinable” (Douglas, 1966). Nevertheless, the process of ordering inevitably generates some intermediate or overlapping categories; things that belong to several categories at the same time or that do not belong to any. Ordering therefore creates disorder as “the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (Douglas, 1966). As disorder threatens the entire system of socially constructed categories, it has to be hidden and banned. From this arises the taboo as a mechanism to prevent contact with disorder, or even to ignore those parts of reality that do not fit into classification schemes. Contact with such ‘transitions’ is associated with impurity, pollution and dirt; “As we know it, dirt is essentially disorder” (Douglas, 1966).

Can we explain the fear of GM crops using Douglas' theory of purity and taboo, at least in part? To begin answering this question, let us consider the characteristic traits of transgenic organisms. According to the official Europa Glossary, “GMOs are organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered not by reproduction and/or natural recombination but by the introduction of a modified gene or a gene from another variety or species” (Europa Glossary, 2008). In this sense, GMOs are indeed the essence of a taboo: a transition; a mixture of two different categories and two different species. Most people commonly assume that species are fixed rather than fluid, established by nature rather than social negotiations (Robert & Baylis, 2005). GMOs break the boundaries of fixed, neat categories and thus pollute the entire system of ordering the universe. Moreover, in addition to transgressing intraspecies boundaries, the products of genetic engineering also trespass on other categories. They “cross a culturally salient line between nature and artifice” and “are at once completely ordinary and the stuff of science fiction” (Haraway, 1997). Seen from this perspective, transgenic organisms fulfil the definition of a taboo. Indeed, the analysis of the anti-GMO discourse shows that it is full of ideas and arguments that relate to purity, defilement and the breaking of a taboo.

…GMOs are indeed the essence of a taboo: a transition; a mixture of two different categories and two different species

Opponents of GMOs commonly describe them in terms of “genetic pollution”, “living pollution” (Greenpeace, 2008a) or “genetic contamination” (GeneWatch UK, 2008). GMOs are said to “contaminate the plant and food chain” and to be an “unrecallable pollution of our native species” (Rose & Łopata, 2008). And, unlike normal dirt, GMO pollution seems to have almost supernatural abilities. It “can spread” (Greenpeace, 2008a), and it “cannot be halted or cleaned up” (Greenpeace, 2008a); it cannot be “contained” and will not decrease over time (Say No To GMOs, 2006). All these features suggest that opponents of transgenic organisms speak of some ‘super’ pollution, which resembles the defilement connected with breaking a taboo.

In Douglas' interpretation, impurity is associated with infectivity: if it is not kept completely at bay, pollution will spread and defile the entire categorization system. Even though nowadays our perception of infection is dominated by the knowledge of pathogens, the underlying, ancient idea of infectivity again evokes the symbolism of taboo and impurity. Considering these similarities, it is not surprising that anti-GMO organizations state that GM genes can infect other crops (Institute for Responsible Technology, 2008), or that activists often wear biohazard suits or speak of quarantining GM crops. The same idea of genetic contagion can be seen in one of Greenpeace's animations in which everything that comes into contact with transgenic soya changes colour and becomes contagious itself (Greenpeace, 2008b). Indigenous Peruvian farmer Felipe Gonzales even said of one particular GM technology, Terminator seeds: “Like a plague they will come infecting our crops and carrying sickness” (Progressio, 2007). Moreover, because there is no visible distinction between transgenic and regular organisms, avoiding this “genetic pollution” is extremely hard and the risk of unconsciously being infected and defiled is therefore perceived to be very high.

GMOs break the boundaries of fixed, neat categories and thus pollute the entire system of ordering the universe

Rather than perceiving genes as information that is easily exchanged between organisms, people seem to regard genes as things that maintain boundaries between species. A study in the Netherlands of public attitudes to modern genetics found that “people raised the issue of boundaries and limits in virtually all the interviews”, and that they voiced “concerns that genetics has the potential to transgress and transform boundaries” (Taussig, 2004). This idea of breaking boundaries is the very nature of taboo and is echoed in anti-GMO rhetoric. Such publications commonly claim that genetic modifications do not operate within established natural boundaries (Say No To GMOs, 2006), that they “breach species barriers set up by nature” (Institute for Responsible Technology, 2008) and that genetic engineering is a technology “designed to break down species barriers” or aims “to overcome those mechanisms that maintain the integrity of species” (Ho, 2001).

Another theme of anti-GMO campaigners, although not as common as pollution and boundary crossing, is the sinful character of genetic modifications. This topic is raised mainly by religious organizations or individuals who believe that genetic modifications are “a defilement of the land and violation of God's law” (Ciola, 2007), “aberrations” and “perverted seeds” (Stollorz, 2007), or an “abomination to YHWH [God]” (Ben Daniel, 2005). Other, more prominent critics, such as HRH The Prince of Wales, also believe that genetic engineering goes against “a sacred trust between mankind and our Creator, under which we accept a duty of stewardship for the earth” (HRH The Prince of Wales, 2000). Interestingly, after Archbishop Gianfranco Girotti condemned some genetic manipulations as irresponsible—such as human cloning and in vitro fertilization—newspapers around the world announced that the Vatican considers genetic engineering a deadly sin (Owen, 2008), despite a generally positive attitude from the Holy Roman Church towards GMOs.

This mixing of advanced technology and religion might seem strange, yet it becomes understandable if GMOs break a taboo: as such, trespassing the fixed system of categories evokes feelings of sin and might cause supernatural sanctions. Genetic engineering, as mentioned above, certainly breaks many boundaries that are considered natural or even sacred. “Transgenic border-crossing signifies serious challenges to the ‘sanctity of life’ for many members of Western cultures […] The distinction between nature and culture in Western societies has been a sacred one” (Haraway, 1997). No surprise, therefore, that most EU citizens perceive the generation of GM crops as “morally unacceptable” (Eurobarometer, 2006).

In summary, the anti-GMO discourse portrays transgenic organisms in terms of impurity and taboo breaking. They are referred to as pollution or contamination and are considered to be contagious and infective. They are described as trespassing natural limits and transgressing boundaries, and sometimes as sinful and profaning sacred limits. With all these features ascribed to them, GMOs resemble the classical defilement of taboo breaking described by Douglas. Transgenic organisms, in the words of their opponents, are an “arrogant abomination of nature placing our ecosystems in extreme jeopardy” (Emerald Valley Kitchen, 2008)—a modern day version of the abominations recorded in Leviticus.

Taboos have played and continue to play a crucial role in human societies. By maintaining the boundaries of culturally defined categories, they ensure the order and integrity of society and allow us to ignore or avoid those things that disturb the structure we impose on nature. Moreover, many taboos are concerned with issues of health, alimentation and social organization, such as the taboo of incest, or kosher and halal dietary rules. However, despite the crucial role of taboos in culture, they are sometimes destructive; especially subconscious taboos that can cause people to act irrationally. In these cases, they not only cause strain and tension within society, but can also hamper potentially beneficial activities. This might be the case with the taboo of GMOs.

GMOs are created in the isolation of molecular biology laboratories, yet they are entangled with cultural perceptions and ideas

GMOs are created in the isolation of molecular biology laboratories, yet they are entangled with cultural perceptions and ideas. Therefore, the strength of anti-GMO opposition cannot be completely understood without considering how culture defines GMOs and their role: “Genetic knowledge and practices cannot be reduced to biology, nor can they be understood simply as scientific knowledge” (Taussig, 2004). The interpretation of GMOs as the breaking of a modern taboo could help to explain why transgenic organisms have generated both political and ideological controversy. Of course, taboo-breaking alone cannot fully address the public opposition to GMOs; factors such as the perception of risk, political and economic issues, or a general attitude to scientific research are also important (Harper, 2004; Prainsack & Firestine, 2005; Taussig, 2004). Nevertheless, the concept of GMOs as a modern taboo might be important for understanding and interpreting the place that transgenic organisms—and science in general—occupy in modern culture. No matter how innovative scientific inventions might be, they will always be perceived and assessed by society within traditional cultural schemes.

Anti-GMO campaigns efficiently address deep-seated fears in our culture and the similarities between transgenic organisms and taboo-breaking have probably contributed to the efficacy of this campaign. Despite this, the landscape might still change in the future and GM products might gain wider acceptance. If so, it will likely be owing to scientific progress, improved consumer benefits, safer technologies and political trends—but it might be also driven by cultural changes.

Conflict of Interest

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The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.

References

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Biography

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  2. Conflict of Interest
  3. References
  4. Biography
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    Jakub Kwieciński is at the Department of Rheumatology and Inflammation Research at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.Email: jakub.kwiecinski@rheuma.gu.se