GMOs: A Case Study in Risk Perception

As you all know, I’m always trying to get us not just to be more enlightened about the environmental problems out there, but to become more critical about how we come to perceive what and which environmental problems to focus on or care about.  Follow me?   I want us to be always vigilant about the rhetoric of environmental crisis; that’s one of the top “learning outcomes” of our class, recall? 

We’ll spend quite a bit of time talking about “risk perception” in upcoming weeks, but this article gives us a little forecast of the importance of risk perception to the aforementioned vigilance.  The basic premise of risk perception is that there are all kinds of forces–some corporate, some media, some social/cultural, etc etc– that shape what we perceive to be problems we should take seriously.  It really has nothing to do with what are truly the greatest threats.  We purchase home insurance based on 5% risk of anything happening to it, but many of us don’t believe that climate change is occuring, even when “scientific uncertainty” amounts to far greater likelihood than 5%.   This is an example of how risk perception is influenced by a whole gamut of forces– laws, corporate interest, media portrayal of home disasters, fear of ‘others’, time-scale of the given risk, scope and geographical scale of that risk, perceived origins of that risk, ability to imagine threats to home better than threats to planet, etc– rather than the reality of the threat. 

Framing all of this in terms of GMOs, we might ask, “why don’t we care about GMOs?”, “Why are GMOs less scary to us than environmental refugees?”  

Check out the article’s treatment of GMOs by scrolling down.  Here’s a taste:

Imagine you are back running your media company. Following reports from Europe that consumers are demonstrating against GMOs, a biotech industry organization asks you to come up with a good risk communication strategy in the US. Realizing just how complex a task this is, you decide to study the field extensively.

…Before going forward you decide this time to set up some focus groups and commission some quantitative opinion research. And you immediately learn something astonishing. When you ask people if they have ever eaten any GM food, most say no. A majority of Americans are very surprised to learn they have been eating GM food—notably foods with GM corn and soy ingredients—for five or six years. And when they find out, they get angry, asking such questions as “Why weren’t we told?” and “Why isn’t the food labeled?” (Palfreman, 2001).

…You conclude that things are perilous. Any adverse reports about GMOs are likely to be reported, published, and picked up by the popular media, and any perceived risks amplified and ratcheted up. So, what is the best risk communication strategy? You cannot do much about the fact that GMOs are not perceived as necessary. You also feel it might be dangerous for biotech companies to make too much of the fact that GMOs will feed the world, given that most people realize they are, like all private companies, trying to make profits. But one variable appears very promising: choice. The ideal strategy is staring you in the face: labeling!

… You hand in your report, recommending your employer to lobby the FDA intensively to introduce mandatory labeling. Unfortunately, your advice is too counter-intuitive for your client. The biotech organization fires you and retains another media company instead.  Welcome to the thankless world of risk communication!

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