Nav: Home

Future of US citrus may hinge on consumer acceptance of genetically modified food

February 13, 2019

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A tiny insect, no bigger than the head of a pin, is threatening to topple the multibillion-dollar citrus industry in the U.S. by infecting millions of acres of orchards with an incurable bacterium called citrus greening disease.

The battle to save the citrus industry is pitting crop producers and a team of agriculture researchers - including agricultural communications professor Taylor K. Ruth of the University of Illinois - against a formidable brown bug, the Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads the disease.

Trees infected with the disease, also called Huanglongbing or HB, bear small, misshapen, bitter-tasting green fruit and often die within five years. Currently, there's no known cure for the disease, which has cost the U.S. citrus industry billions of dollars in crop production and thousands of jobs since it was first identified in Florida in 2005, according to agriculture experts.

Among other solutions, scientists are exploring the possibility of breeding genetically modified trees that are resistant to the disease.

But given the controversy over the safety of genetically modified food, scientists need to know whether producers will adopt this technology and whether shoppers will buy and consume GM citrus fruit.

A recent study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provides some encouraging answers.

Ruth was on a team of scientists from several universities that surveyed a representative sample of U.S. consumers and conducted focus groups to better understand American consumers' attitudes about GM food and agriculture.

About half of the 1,050 people who responded to the survey had positive attitudes toward GM science, the researchers found. Nearly 37 percent of the consumers surveyed felt neutral about GM science and 14 percent had negative perceptions of it.

Most of the people who were receptive to GM science were white males who were millennials or younger, the data indicated. They were highly educated - most held a bachelor's degree or higher - and affluent, with annual incomes of $75,000 or greater.

Women, on the other hand, constituted 64 percent of the group with negative feelings about GM science. Baby boomers and older adults were nearly twice as likely to fall into this group. People in this group also were less educated - about half reported some college but no degree.

The findings were published recently in the journal Science Communication. Co-authors of the paper were Joy N. Rumble, of Ohio State University; Alexa J. Lamm, of the University of Georgia; Traci Irani, of the University of Florida; and Jason D. Ellis, of Kansas State University.

Since social contexts influence public opinion on contentious issues, the survey also assessed respondents' willingness to share their opinions about GM science, their current perceptions of others' views on the topic and what they expected public opinion about it to be in the future.

The research team was particularly interested in exploring the potential impact of the "spiral of silence" theory, a hypothesis on public opinion formation that states in part that people who are highly vocal about their opinions in public encourage others with similar views to speak out while effectively silencing those who hold opposite views.

"If people believe the majority of others disagree with them on a topic, they will feel pressure to conform to the majority opinion," Ruth said.

"People aren't going to be supportive of something if nobody else is supportive of it - no one wants to feel like they are different from the group. That's the reality of the world that we live in today."

By contrast, people surveyed who rejected GM science were more likely to express their opinion when they believed others held the opposite view. But people with positive feelings about GM technology were less likely to speak out when they believed others supported it too.

"The way others express their attitude has an indirect effect on what our attitude ends up being," Ruth said. "We might fall in the actual majority opinion about some of these complex topics, but if other people aren't vocalizing their opinions, we don't know that others out there are like-minded.

"Then we start to think 'Well, maybe I should realign my attitude to what I'm seeing in the media.' What we see in the media is just reflective of the most dominant voice in the conversation, not necessarily the majority opinion. And I think sometimes people don't quite understand that."

Like climate change, GM science is among the complex challenges that some researchers call "wicked issues" - societal problems that are often poorly understood and fraught with conflict, even when the public is provided with relevant science and facts, Ruth, Rumble, Lamm and Ellis wrote in a related study.

That paper was published recently in the Journal of Agricultural Education.

"We must have these conversations about these wicked issues," Ruth said. "If scientists let other people who don't have a scientific background fill the void, we're not going to be a part of that conversation and help people make decisions based upon all of the facts."
-end-


University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Agriculture Articles:

Post-pandemic brave new world of agriculture
Recent events have shown how vulnerable the meat processing industry is to COVID-19.
Agriculture - a climate villain? Maybe not!
The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that agriculture is one of the main sources of greenhouse gases, and is thus by many observers considered as a climate villain.
Digital agriculture paves the road to agricultural sustainability
In a study published in Nature Sustainability, researchers outline how to develop a more sustainable land management system through data collection and stakeholder buy-in.
Comparisons of organic and conventional agriculture need to be better, say researchers
The environmental effects of agriculture and food are hotly debated.
EU agriculture not viable for the future
The current reform proposals of the EU Commission on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are unlikely to improve environmental protection, say researchers led by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the University of Göttingen in the journal Science.
Global agriculture: Impending threats to biodiversity
A new study compares the effects of expansion vs. intensification of cropland use on global agricultural markets and biodiversity, and finds that the expansion strategy poses a particularly serious threat to biodiversity in the tropics.
A new vision for genomics in animal agriculture
Iowa State University animal scientists helped to form a blueprint to guide the next decade of animal genomics research.
New pathways for sustainable agriculture
Diversity beats monotony: a colourful patchwork of small, differently used plots can bring advantages to agriculture and nature.
The future of agriculture is computerized
Researchers at the MIT Media Lab Open Agriculture Initiative have used computer algorithms to determine the optimal growing conditions to improve basil plants' taste by maximizing the concentration of flavorful molecules known as volatile compounds.
When yesterday's agriculture feeds today's water pollution
Water quality is threatened by a long history of fertilizer use on land, Canadian scientists find.
More Agriculture News and Agriculture Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.