What Vaccine Opponents Can Teach Us about Food Biotechnology

It's hard to see headlines about vaccinations and not think about another promising technology for humans: biotechnology. But the analogies only go so far.

First there was news about cases of mumps among NHL hockey players. Then came word of measles outbreaks traced to Disneyland. These stories spread almost as fast as the diseases themselves, touching off a heated national debate about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.

measles-virus

Illnesses once thought to be all but eradicated are reemerging as threats to public health at levels not seen for years.

Fortunately, while vaccines are not entirely risk-free, the chances of adverse effects are minuscule. They also pale in comparison to the dangers posed by the diseases vaccines protect against. In fact, the CDC says that up to 90 percent of people who aren’t vaccinated against measles could contract the disease by being close to a single infected person. That number drops to 3 percent with just two doses of the vaccine.

There is overwhelming evidence of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.  They save an estimated 6 million lives every year.

Yet despite what the abundant science tells us, a troubling minority of people still refuse to vaccinate their children. No, it’s not because their kids are immunosuppressed and face greater health risks than the rest of us. It’s because of fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as the notoriously debunked claim that vaccines might be linked to autism.

My own beliefs on the issue were shaped in part by travels to Africa with UNICEF. Deaths from measles in industrialized countries is a distant memory because of vaccination, but measles still kills more than 145,000 people in the rest of the world.

Watching close up as impoverished areas make great headway against preventable diseases like measles and polio is encouraging, but the feeling dissipates when I see some of my fellow Westerners undermining the progress that has been made.

autism-organic-correlation

Some opponents’ beliefs stem from the fallacy of “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” or mistaking correlation for causation. Critics point out this issue with a facetious but factually accurate chart (right). The chart shows the correlation between sales of organic foods and rates of autism diagnoses.

Fortunately, the commentary in the media and among the medical and scientific communities has been almost completely uniform, supporting one simple but critical fact: Vaccines work. A recent poll has shown a larger consensus. While the public at large doesn’t believe in vaccines as strongly as scientists do, the views of average people and experts tend to align.

The parallels to the dialogue about genetically engineered (GE) food—what some refer to imprecisely as “GMOs”—are inescapable. But, from a perspective of scientific literacy, the results are much more dismal.

The poll, from the Pew Research Center, surveyed more than 3,000 scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). For a frame of comparison, they also surveyed 2,000 adults to gauge attitudes and understanding of scientific topics, which revealed where gaps exist between the two groups.

One question asked was whether childhood vaccines should be mandatory, with 68 percent of adults agreeing, and 86 percent of scientists in agreement—an 18-point gap.

But on the question of food produced through biotechnology, there is a yawning chasm. Just 37 percent of adults believe that GE foods are “generally safe.” In comparison, 88 percent of scientists agreed that GE foods are safe—a gap of 51 percentage points.

IFIC’s 2014 Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey found similar (and growing) public skepticism: 28 percent of Americans said they were favorable toward plant biotechnology, and an equal amount said they were unfavorable. While overall confidence in the food supply remains quite high at 66 percent, even that number has been trending downward.

science-and-society-biotech

The science—not just the scientists themselves—also supports the safety of GE food. What’s more, it shows widespread benefits of the technology.

So why is the public far more accepting of vaccines than food biotechnology? Any number of reasons could account for it. Immunization has proven its benefits since 1796, when Edward Jenner developed the cowpox vaccine. Genetic engineering is a more recent innovation.

But the media and communications environment plays a role. Attitudes among a number of otherwise respected journalists and media outlets lag behind the scientific consensus. Television doctors and non-credentialed bloggers contribute to unfounded hysteria. This hysteria, of course, just happens to have the added benefit of TV ratings, website traffic, and book sales. Some activists question the benefits of biotech, while others actively destroy experiments that are designed to demonstrate them.

This attitude can be frustrating to those who try to communicate those benefits. We highlight increased crop yields, more efficient use of farmland, and decreased environmental impacts. But, most critically, we emphasize that this technology is part of the solution to feed an additional 2 billion hungry mouths over the next 30 years.

Even in a world of plenty, 870 million people still go hungry every day. I’ve looked many of them in the eye, some with distended bellies and emaciated children, and I couldn’t imagine denying them a technology with such great potential to save lives and lift them out of poverty.

biotech-africa

How we communicate about science can make a difference in changing attitudes and behaviors. In the case of vaccines, opponents tend to be well-educated (despite their mistaken perceptions of immunization). There is ample evidence that attacking them or impugning their intelligence will only cause them to dig in more.

Whether the subject is the measles vaccine or food biotechnology, the best antidote is the facts themselves. Provide evidence, calmly refute misperceptions and misinformation, and connect with people’s values. Several anecdotes point to anti-vaccination parents immediately getting their kids immunized after learning about recent disease outbreaks.

In the future, as evidence continues to mount about the safety and potential of biotechnology, it will touch more and more of us in tangible, positive ways. Maybe then the acceptance gap between scientists and the public will begin to close.

 

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