The Conversation About GMOs in 2021
An analysis of attention, influence, and themes in news and social media conversations about GMOs in recent years.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are among the more controversial topics in public science discourse. Though humans have used selective breeding and cross-breeding to modify the traits of plants and animals for thousands of years, when people talk about “genetically modified organisms” today, they are typically referring to organisms created through genetic engineering. This field of science, developed in the 1970s, alters the genes of cells using various technologies, often taking a gene from one species and introducing it to another. The first GMO available for human use was synthetic insulin, approved in 1982 and still incredibly important in the treatment of diabetes.
The first commercially sold genetically modified food followed in 1994: the Flavr Savr tomato. Tomatoes are relatively delicate and can be damaged during transit. They also have a narrow window of time in which they are firm and ripe, presenting challenges for shipping and sale. Like many other kinds of produce, one approach to these problems is to harvest them before they are ripe, but then the flavor suffers. The Flavr Savr introduced a gene which suppressed one of the tomato’s enzymes responsible for breaking down cell walls, allowing them to remain firmer longer, and thus more time to ripen on the vine. After extensive testing and research, they were approved for sale. They were briefly popular, but the business built around them struggled. They had some success as tomato paste in the United Kingdom, but consumers started to express safety concerns about genetically modified foods and the arrangement was terminated. There were opponents to the Flavr Savr from the beginning, often owing to the lack of regulatory structure that existed at the time, but they were a minority and did not have significant buy-in from the public. The eventual turn in public opinion in the UK was stark, and perhaps attributable to a BBC interview with Arpad Pusztai, who shared early – and now discredited – research about the effects of genetically modified potatoes on rats.
It was another twenty years before a genetically modified animal was approved for food: the Atlantic salmon. Research began at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1989, where scientists combined elements of Chinook salmon and ocean pout genes and added it to Atlantic salmon. This expanded the active time of growth from the salmon’s natural seasons to all year round, bringing them more quickly to market. The company AquaBounty sought government approval as early as 1995, but met several regulatory and political challenges. An FDA report showed the salmon to be safe from a health and environmental perspective, but there was considerable opposition and many retailers committed not to sell it. One of the major concerns was about ecological impact should the salmon manage to be released in the wild, so the fish are sterile and raised in secure tanks in Canada and Panama. After additional delays, they finally went to market in 2021.
In total, there are 13 genetically modified foods currently available in various parts of the world: alfalfa, apple, canola, corn, cotton, eggplant, papaya, pineapple, potato, salmon, soybean, sugarbeet, and summer squash. Some of these are only grown in small amounts, like summer squash; others are niche food items, like pink-flesh pineapple. Several crops, like tomatoes, melon, safflower, and cowpea, have been approved by one or more national regulating body, but are not grown anywhere due to a combination of factors including political, cultural, economic, or other objections. The debate over GMOs is not a single question, but a large set of overlapping issues involving food safety, medicine, agriculture, law, industry, scientific publishing, activism, philosophy, tradition, and even religion. Following one thread inevitably leads to areas of intersection with others. While people’s reasons for opposing GMOs vary, they often have at their root some suspicion of agribusiness, governments, and scientific research practices, or notions of what it means to be “natural.” On the other hand, proponents of GMOs often cite opportunities for large scale benefits to health, our ability to feed the growing human population, and the environment, as well as the lack of scientific evidence for opponents’ negative claims.
While there are several unresolved questions relevant to GMOs, such as various social and economic effects and their geographic variation, other elements of the debate have achieved some degree of scientific consensus. One of the most visible topics in coverage of GMOs, especially amid debates over whether to require labels on GMO products, is the safety of genetically modified food for human consumption. Skepticism of genetically modified food, despite a strong scientific consensus to the contrary, has drawn comparisons between GMOs and topics like climate change and vaccines. A 2015 Pew study on science and technology topics compared attitudes and beliefs of adults in the US with those of scientists associated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among all of the issues, including climate and vaccination, the biggest gap between adults surveyed and scientists was about whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods (37% of US adults said yes, compared to 88% of scientists). In 2020, another Pew study found that while a majority of respondents believe GMOs are at least fairly likely to increase the global food supply and lead to more affordable food, a smaller majority believe they will lead to health problems and create problems for the environment. Furthermore, looking at beliefs about genetically modified foods over time, it showed that the percentage of US adults who believe genetically modified foods are worse for one’s health has increased between 2016 and 2019.
The debates are ongoing, but at least in the United States, it does not seem like as many people are talking about GMOs as they were a few years ago. To get a sense of the GMO debate as of 2021, a good first question is how much attention the subject is receiving in news media, and to what extent is it changing over time, if at all? The more news media cover a subject, the more prominent it becomes in public discourse. By looking at how the subject is covered, we can also get a sense of what the current conversation looks like. Are there broad themes in coverage which have changed over time? Who is influential in the coverage, and what are the key stories? Finally, how closely does the conversation in news media reflect what people are talking about on social media?
Coverage of GMOs has been declining
Using the Media Cloud Explorer, we can look at the amount of attention a topic has received over time. I used a query which targeted articles that mention GMOs or related terms at least twice, to filter out most of the stories which just mention the topic in passing, and searched through nine of our United States-based collections (US national sources, top sources, top newspapers, top digital natives, and the five Robertson 2018 Partisanship collections).
At first glance, despite an overall downward trendline, the total number of stories about GMOs looks inconsistent since 2012, but when calculated as a percentage of all stories each year, the downward trend becomes clearer: news sources are not writing about GMOs as much as they were just a few years ago.
Due to the number of collections in this query, it gives a picture of a larger media conversation, but how well does that align with the mainstream news that accounts for a large proportion of actual news consumption? While “mainstream” is a complicated and subjective term, we can limit our query to only the most popular sources. So I ran the same query, but removed the partisanship collections and the large list of national sources, leaving just the three “top sources” collections. The results paint a slightly different picture. It is worth noting that the determination of “top” is based on 2018 data, so would not include sources which stopped operating prior to 2018 or which began afterwards.
There are two clear differences between these charts and the ones above. First, top sources do not cover GMOs as much as sources in our other collections do. For example, in 2014, .041% of stories in the broader query were about GMOs, only .029% of stories in top sources were. Second, rather than a gradual decline, there is a spike in coverage around 2014, which sharply declines in 2017. This might be a reflection of the number of advocacy sites in the partisanship collections, which may be more likely to cover certain kinds of topics than mainstream news. It may also be that the conversation about GMOs intersected with a topic mainstream news does typically cover – national politics and legislation. I go into more detail about some of those political and legal topics below.
At Media Cloud, we specialize in analyzing news sources, but sometimes to understand a debate it is useful to also look at social media. Using Brandwatch, I queried the total number of mentions of “GMOs” globally, and limited to just the United States.
The downward trend visible since 2016 looks similar to the proportion of news coverage above, both globally and in the United States. The overall shape, however, looks more like the coverage of GMOs in top news sources, with an increase that peaks in 2016 and a decrease thereafter, as opposed to a more consistent decrease over the same time period. There are undoubtedly many reasons for the trends visible in the charts, but a useful first step to understand them may be to look at topical themes.
Themes in coverage
Media Cloud runs stories through a set of models which categorize stories by theme, based on the New York Times annotated corpus. The graph below shows some of the top themes from the Explorer query I used above. Media Cloud assigns many more themes than are displayed below, and stories can be assigned to multiple themes, so the figures do not add up to 100%. For the purpose of this chart, I made a list of the top four themes from each year, then checked the prevalence of stories with that theme across the set. The numbers date back to 2015, not 2012, for data quality reasons.
A few trends are immediately noticeable. While stories about food have declined somewhat since 2015, it is still the second most common theme. On the other hand, stories about law/legislation have shrunk to almost nothing. This is likely due to GMO labeling legislation; while the EU has had labeling requirements since 1997, the labeling debate in the US peaked in the early-to-mid-2010s. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act was introduced in 2015 and was not passed, but led to another labeling bill, Public Law 114-214, which passed in 2016.
The labels which were eventually designed for the law, for which mandatory compliance began in the beginning of 2022, use the term “bioengineering” rather than “GMO.” While this term saw very few mentions in news media through August 2021, it will be interesting to follow the trajectory of this term and its use within the coverage of GMOs. The chart below shows the percentage of all stories about GMOs which mention labels or labeling. It shows the results for the larger dataset as well as just the top sources, demonstrating fairly similar proportions, with the top sources somewhat more likely to mention labeling until around the time the labeling bill was passed.
Another theme in coverage of GMOs, “politics and government” (which is not in the chart above because it was not in the top four on any given year) saw a similar downward trend, from 29.32% of stories in 2016 to just 4.44% in 2021. While medicine/health has been a common theme throughout the period, diseases/conditions rose in 2020. This was at least in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Covid” or “coronavirus” was mentioned in 31% of GMO stories in 2020, and 20.5% in 2021.
Next, I looked for patterns in coverage between groups of sources. There is research which has found connections between trust in science and political identity, with political alignment on a particular issue influencing the degree of trust in science related to that issue. This has been well publicized in the context of American conservatism and climate science, but mistrust in science related to GMOs is often attributed more to the left. To see how this might play out in the news, I compared US sources in our top sources and national collections, sources tweeted more frequently by Republican voters, and sources tweeted more frequently by Democrat voters, according to the Robertson 2018 Partisanship collections. It is worth noting that while the partisanship collections are mutually exclusive of each other (one source cannot be simultaneously tweeted more by Republicans and tweeted more by Democrats), the top/national collections contain sources which overlap with the various partisanship collections. For example, HuffPost is a source tweeted somewhat more by Democrats, and The Daily Caller is tweeted mostly by Republicans, but both are also in our national collection. For this search, I looked at a two year period from 2019-08-28 to 2021-08-28. These dates were chosen due to the quality of this data in the Media Cloud corpus.
Health and medicine was predictably the most common theme in a time period which includes the COVID-19 pandemic. Media Cloud’s Explorer identifies the top words used by sources for a given query, and allows for comparison between collections. In this case, I compared groups of sources for diseases/conditions to try to understand the greater number of stories in sources tweeted by Republicans. While the Republican-tweeted sources include more stories which mention “virus,” “covid,” “chemical,” “gates” (for Bill Gates or Gates Foundation), “injected,” which indicate greater likelihood to discuss GMOs and the COVID-19 vaccines together, upon closer inspection much of the difference between words used and the number of stories may be accounted for by a single prolific source, Natural News, well-known for its promotion of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. Running the same query again, but filtering out Natural News, “gates” is still one of the most frequent words in Republican-tweeted sources, as compared to Democrat-tweeted or the top/national sources, but the other virus-related words fall significantly in the list of top words.
When examining stories about food, it is harder to point to specific differences in coverage, or specific sources which could account for it. It is tempting to explain the difference in coverage of food (and diseases and conditions) through popular writing about GMOs which commonly ascribes the desire for “non-GMO” food, GMO labeling, and health-related concerns over genetically modified foods to the left, and skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines and public health officials to the right, but more research would be needed to see if that is reflected in news coverage. It is also worth highlighting the rough thematic alignment between top/national sources and Democrat-tweeted media, which may be relevant to research about asymmetric polarization in American political media.
Recent news coverage
Looking beyond the themes, what were the stories which stood out amid coverage of GMOs in the 2019-2021 query? Loading the same query into Topic Mapper allowed me to examine a wider network of stories. Topic Mapper starts with stories seeded through the query then spiders outward, following links in those stories and adding them to a larger data set. I wound up with 2,808 news stories from 860 sources between August 29, 2019 - August 29, 2021.
A useful feature of Topic Mapper is examining the link structure between sources to determine which stories have the most media inlinks. Looking at the top 20 stories by media inlinks, two subjects emerge as receiving the most attention. First is the release of genetically modified mosquitoes to fight Zika in Florida: Two stories about the mosquitoes from CNN, one from the Boston Globe, and one from the Conversation. The other story with multiple inlinks had to do with genetically modified trees. This includes stories like “Should we genetically engineer carbon-hungry trees?” in Freethink and “Researchers can restore the American chestnut through genetic engineering. But at what cost?” in The Counter, but also a variety of advocacy websites: four different pages from the website for Stop GE Trees (a petition and press releases), SaveOutRoots.org (run by some of the same people as Stop GE Trees), and Global Justice Ecology Project. Other stories in the top 20 included: a Guardian story titled “Monsanto owner and US officials pressured Mexico to drop glyphosate ban,” referring to the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide, for which it develops genetically modified crops resistant to that herbicide; “Mexico’s GM corn ban would hit U.S. hard” in Western Producer; and “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show” by the New York Times. Finally, there was also a World Health Organization FAQ, a press release from the Institute for Responsible Technology (an anti-GMO advocacy organization), an FDA information page, and an older source, the later-retracted 2012 study by Gilles-Éric Séralini which fueled anti-GMO fears by concluding that rats fed genetically modified corn developed tumors.
Surprisingly, none of the top news stories are specifically about genetically modified food safety, despite being frequently cited as among the most controversial GMO-related issues. Most are not about genetically modified food at all, but about mosquitoes and trees. Other stories about Monsanto tie in more closely with typical GMO controversies, which frequently involve suspicion of agribusiness in general and Monsanto in particular. These stories may not be about the safety of GM foods, but they do factor into a narrative in which agribusiness interferes with the integrity politics and the way GMOs are discussed.
Topic Mapper can also sort the popularity of sources by the number of times they were shared on Facebook. Only one of the top 10 shared on Facebook was also in the top 10 by media inlinks: one of the CNN stories about mosquitoes. The rest: a Health Impact News story about how glyphosate will cause half of all children to have autism by 2015; two stories by Food Babe about avoiding foods with GMOs; Slate on problems with the anti-GMO movement; an anti-GMO documentary’s website, Genetic Roulette; a National Geographic story about why reasonable people doubt science; a Natural News story about the Seralini paper; a Natural News story about Monsanto buying a bee research firm; and the official site for March Against Monsanto.
Looking at the top 40 media sources by Facebook shares, most can be organized into four categories: mainstream news, science (including academic and science communication), questionable or low quality health/medicine sites (those known for questionable factual accuracy and/or even promoting pseudoscience of conspiracy theories), and anti-GMO projects and organizations.
Some caveats for the list below: while only one of the categories is explicitly labeled as “questionable or low quality” here, the quality within each category varies, too. For example, the Russian state-controlled television network RT is listed under general news based on its content, but should not be construed to be similar in reliability to others on that list. Even the low quality health/medicine category contains sources which are more or less reliable than others for various topics. One source, Children’s Health Defense, could have probably been categorized as “questionable or low quality health/medicine” or “anti-GMO projects and organizations.” It is included in the latter because it is primarily an advocacy organization with a narrow scope, although its GMO advocacy is secondary to its anti-vaccine focus. My motivation here is to understand the conversation about GMOs more than to closely scrutinize any of the sources individually or create a methodologically sound taxonomy.
General news (1,255,823 total shares on Facebook):
- New York Times
- Washington Post
- Huffington Post
- New Yorker
- Mother Jones
- LA Times
- Global News
Science (423,642 total shares):
- National Geographic
- Popular Science
- Alliance for Science
- New England Skeptical Society
- Kevin Folta
- Modern Farmer
- The Ecologist
- Science in Society
Questionable or low quality health/medicine (2,418,849 total shares):
- Food Babe
- Health Impact News
- Natural News
- Independent Science News
- Natural Society
- Return to Now
- Collective Evolution
Anti-GMO projects and organizations (464,084 total shares):
- Genetic Roulette movie
- March Against Monsanto
- Organic Consumers
- Responsible Technology
- Children’s Health Defense
- GMO Film
- Occupy Monsanto
Among these groupings, questionable or low quality health/medicine sources are by far the most shared. At 2,418,849 total shares, they amount to more than the other three categories combined. The prevalence of these kinds of sources indicates that while GMOs may not be discussed as much now as they were a few years ago, it is not because the interested public has a greater understanding of science or become more trusting of science. There are some stark differences between the kinds of claims made by the most popular sources on Facebook and those made by mainstream and science sources.
The social media conversation
To dig a bit deeper into the way people are talking about GMOs on social media, I used Brandwatch to search the past ten years, and then narrowed it to the same two-year period as my main Media Cloud queries.
Comparing the list of most used English words in the ten-year archive to the two-year archive, the hashtag #gmo has disappeared; “Monsanto” was once one of the most used words, but is missing from the list of most used words in the past two years and has not been replaced by Bayer, Monsanto’s parent company as of 2018; all versions of “label” and “labeling” are gone. Nearly all of the most used words in both word clouds are the kinds of terms one would expect to see in relation to consumer products, like “non-GMO,” “organic,” “products,” “natural,” and “ingredients.” Without deeper research and perhaps omitting those terms, it is difficult to separate product discussions which take the virtue of “non-GMO” as self-evident from discourse about GMOs.
Brandwatch can also sort data by the top interests of the people who talk about GMOs. The table above shows the top interest by volume mentioning GMOs for both the ten-year and two-year sets. The most salient difference was in politics, which dropped from #1 to #5, likely related to the declining legal and political discussions about labeling.
Looking at the top shared URLs from English social media posts in the 2019-2021 query, there is a mix of sources. The story with the most shares was also the only general or mainstream news site, CNN. In second, fourth, and fifth place are commercial links. The ranking is based just on the volume of links to a URL, which can be achieved by a small number of people frequently linking to it, or even by spambots. In fact, I have not included the most linked URLs in the ten-year set in large part because it is overtaken by spam. The messages these spam links appear in are not typically taking a political stance, but simply mention in their marketing that the product does not contain GMOs. Spam presents an inherent weakness in this sort of data, and complicates numbers for even some sites that might not, at first, seem like they would be spammed. A sample of tweets for the third most shared URL from the website Seattle Organic Restaurants, shows a very large number of tweets from a single account with few followers, with often misleading messages like this one. The bottom half of the list includes sources which were also among the most shared news sites identified by Topic Mapper, combining some science information sites, anti-GMO organizations, and low quality health/medicine sites.
- CNN - 750 million genetically engineered mosquitoes approved for release in Florida Keys
- The Seed Guy - Seed Packages
- Seattle Organic Restaurants - Does organic mean non-GMO and is organic food safer and more nutritious?
- Amazon - Suicide Seeds: A GMO Thriller
- FaceBook - The Seed Guy
- Science Business - Boris Johnson vows to ditch EU rules on GM crops
- Children’s Health Defense - Bill Gates’ Scary Recipe for How to Feed the World
- The Counter - Mexico is phasing out imports of glyphosate and GMO corn. Supporters say that could reverse years of damage from U.S. trade policy
- GMWatch - Safety concerns raised over Impossible Burger GMO fake meat ingredient
- GMOnion - Dear Food & Chemical Toxicology: RETRACT HAMMOND’S Study, NOT Seralini’s!
The previous sections have explored how much coverage GMOs have received in recent years, what aspects of the subject were covered, and which sources are most frequently shared. But within the coverage, who are the most influential voices? To understand the role of advocates, scientists, journalists, and other individuals in the conversation about GMOs, I used Media Cloud’s CLIFF-CLAVIN engine, which parses news articles and pulls out the names of mentioned entities: people, organizations and places. This allows us to get a sense of who was part of the media discussion, and often corresponds to specific stories. I looked at the top entities mentioned in news stories in the Media Cloud database matching my GMO query for each year starting in 2015 (due to a technical limitation at time of writing, 2021 is only covered through the end of August). The table below lists the top 5 most frequently mentioned people each year. As noted above, Natural News has an outsized influence on our dataset. In 2017 and 2018 in particular, it published a very large number of stories about GMOs such that its coverage alone significantly affected the top entities in those years. The table omits Natural News, but the differences are noted where applicable below.
Names highlighted with yellow are current and former presidents and presidential candidates. Presidents appear high on these lists for a wide range of topics for actions they have taken, actions their administration have taken, stances on particular issues, connections to agribusiness, and a variety of tangential reasons. Hillary Clinton is in this category, but is also mentioned in the context of other roles she has had, like Secretary of State. Names in orange are in government positions. Mike Pompeo appears in 2015, when he was in the House of Representatives. He proposed a bill to block state and local laws from requiring GMO labeling. Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack spoke several times about GMOs, too, generally in support of the science showing their safety, but also in support of labeling. Bernie Sanders is highlighted in orange for 2016 and 2017, despite also being a presidential candidate, because of the key role he played in the GMO debate as senator. Pat Roberts and Debbie Stabenow proposed legislation which would block states from requiring labeling, which was strongly opposed by Sanders.
Names highlighted in purple are advocates. All but one, Mara Daly, are affiliated with an organization. The Environmental Working Group, Center for Food Safety, and Friends of the Earth all broadly advocate against GMOs. The Florida Keys Environmental Coalition is not specifically an anti-GMO organization, but took a stance against the release of genetically modified mosquitoes. Mara Daly, the only name without a clear affiliation, was likewise featured as a critic in stories about genetically modified mosquitoes in Florida. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a consumer advocacy group which does not oppose GMOs or support mandatory labeling.
Names in cyan are academics and scientists, cited for expertise in one or more GMO-related subjects or as the author of a recent study. Bill Nye is not an academic, but included in this category as a well-known science communicator. The industry names in green are spokespeople for companies with high-profile genetically modified products or technologies. AquaBounty developed genetically modified salmon and Oxitec genetically engineered mosquitoes to fight Zika. Bill Gates is the sole member of the “philanthropy” group, but might be considered by some to be an advocate for GMOs insofar as they address issues of health and hunger. Since he is frequently mentioned in the role of funder rather than advocate, I have put him in a separate category.
As noted above, this table omits Natural News. This only resulted in significant differences in 2017 and 2018, when the site published hundreds of stories about GMOs. Counting Natural News, in 2017 Obama would have been mentioned more frequently than Trump, Natural News founder Mike Adams would himself be the fourth most mentioned, and Bill Gates would be fifth. In 2018, Mike Adams would have been the most frequently mentioned name, followed by Obama, Trump, Clinton, and Gates.
It is tempting to try to frame the pattern here (the government names mentioned in 2015-2017, influence of academics and scientists in 2018, and industry representatives and advocates in 2019-2021) as a trend in the overall conversation about GMOs, but it seems more accurate to say it is a reflection of the most popular GMO stories from those years: labeling, salmon, and mosquitoes. In 2018, in the absence of a big GMO story, scientists which received a moderate amount of coverage individually rise on the list thanks to a widely picked-up Associated Press story which mentions several of them together.
We have seen that the GMO debate is particularly popular on Twitter, so who was influential in the conversations there? Using Brandwatch’s list of influential social media accounts, I filtered out users with fewer than than 100 followers and those with an average reach of less than 1,000. Then I filtered out some false positives – accounts related to the company GMO Internet, Inc. The top influencers on the list over the past ten years were: FarmFairyCrafts, NoGMOsVerified, TheGOPJesus, VirginiaInCal, GMWatch, Rosevine3, RachelIsNews, 8extremes, CaligirlLeftie, and PositivelyJoan. Sampling the matching tweets indicates all ten are accounts critical of GMOs and prolific in their mentions of the subject, with the fewest number of mentions still over 23,000. Four of the accounts are now suspended for uncertain reasons.
I took these account names, including real names where available, back to Media Cloud’s Explorer tool to determine what, if any, influence they have had on media sources since 2015 (caveat: a shorter time period than the Brandwatch query for data quality reasons). The only one which receives a citation or nontrivial mentions is GMWatch. GMWatch also has a website and Facebook group and describes itself as “an independent organisation that seeks to counter the enormous corporate political power and propaganda of the GMO industry and its supporters.” It was mentioned in the Media Cloud news corpus 106 times between 2015-2021, but almost none of those were in mainstream publications. Vice mentioned its Facebook group as one site of mistrust about the release of genetically modified mosquitoes, but did not cite its claims. About half of the citations came from Natural News, with several citations also from left-leaning news sites like CounterPunch, Truthout, and Nation of Change.
Taking another look at influence on Twitter, I sorted influencers by reach, or the number of people who may actually be seeing a user’s tweets. Most of the top accounts by reach are very popular accounts with just one or two mentions. Setting a minimum number of mentions to five to remove those that are not really part of the conversation, and retaining the requirement of at least 100 followers, returns more predictable sources. The top twenty influencers using these metrics includes several mainstream news organizations (CNN, New York Times, NPR, Reuters, The Economist, and the Wall Street Journal), politicians Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein (critical of GMOs and/or pro-labeling), public scientists Neil Degrease-Tyson (promoting science events related to GMOs) and Steven Pinker (in defense of the science around GMOs), American food news website The Counter (which does not have an obvious bias, based on cursory research), musician Ian Brown (who mentions GMOs in the context of challenging COVID-19 vaccines), paranormal investigator Zak Bagans (anti-GMO), Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Dr. Oz (both known for spreading misinformation about multiple science topics), comedian Justin McElroy (in support of GMOs), and several pseudonymous accounts like Adam_SH69 and Dfaber84 (which appear weakly critical of GMOs). Two other pseudonymous accounts, DestroyIllusion (anti-GMO amid promotion of fringe theories) and MrG_Picks (apparent product spam) have since been suspended.
A theme that emerges when looking at the various lists of influencers is that accounts which are primarily anti-GMO are often prolific, and do have some reach, but aren’t often picked up by news sources. Meanwhile, sorting by reach returns a more predictable mix. This exploration has only involved a cursory examination of the content of the tweets, but additional research may be useful to look at the types of claims being made. Some of the popular accounts seem to promote misinformation not just about GMOs but about other science topics like vaccines.
In this exploration, I wanted to better understand the media conversation about genetically modified organisms as of 2021. I used the Media Cloud Explorer and Topic Mapper tools, as well as BrandWatch, to look at how much attention the subject receives in the news and on social media, how that attention has changed over time, what thematic trends exist in its coverage, which sources are most prominent, and whose voices are heard most often. Here are some key takeaways:
- The share of news coverage dedicated to GMOs as well as the frequency with which GMOs are mentioned on social media have been declining since 2016.
- Until 2016, more than half of the coverage of GMOs mentioned labeling, and has been steadily falling since then. The United States passed a food labeling bill in 2016.
- Food was the most common theme in news coverage until 2020, when medicine and health became most common, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related vaccines. Stories with a politics or law/legislation theme fell sharply after 2016.
- For a two-year period between August 2019 - August 2021, sources tweeted more often by Republicans were less likely to write about GMOs in the context of food or agriculture than either the top/national sources or the sources tweeted more often by Democrats, and more likely to write about GMOs in the context of health/medicine, diseases/conditions, and genetics/heredity.
- Among stories with the most media inlinks, two stories stood out as receiving significant attention in the 2019-2021 period: the release of genetically modified mosquitoes to fight Zika in Florida, and genetic modification of trees. Most of the top news stories were not about genetically modified food, and none were about the safety of genetically modified food.
- Among the top 40 media sources by FaceBook shares in the 2019-2021 period, more than half of the shares are from sources in a category I’ve called “questionable or low-quality health and medicine”.
- Social media mentions of GMOs from 2019-2021 were less likely to use the hashtag #gmo or to mention Monsanto or labeling than they were in the dataset for the past ten years.
- The most commonly named people in media stories about GMOs are a mix of presidents, other government figures, advocates, academics and scientists, industry representatives, and philanthropists. Patterns in the prominence of each group appear more connected to the popularity of specific stories than broader topical influence.
- There are many prolific Twitter accounts which are critical of GMOs, with some influence on Twitter, but rarely, if ever, receive attention from news media sources.
Hero image: Maize kernels by Andrew Butko. CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported via Wikimedia Commons