Most Europeans see the United States as the land that embraces genetic engineering. So imagine the surprise when a British firm — Oxitec — ran into the buzz saw of public opinion trying to introduce a genetically modified (GM) mosquito in Key West to eradicate the dreaded Dengue virus.
Within a few weeks of a public meeting to discuss the mosquito release, a petition against the initiative had more than 100,000 signatories. [The entire population of Monroe County, which encompasses The Keys, is only about 75,000.] Key West inhabitants have branded Oxitec mosquitoes with names like “Robo-Frankenstein mosquitoes,” “mutant mosquitoes,” and “Super bugs,” using rhetoric lifted from movies like Jurassic Park and The Hunger Games.
Are people overreacting? Maybe. But a closer read of many of the comments posted on the petition website provide a deeper insight into the resistance and some key lessons for future technologies dependent on genetic engineering.
• Trust. Whether the public trusts new technologies often depends on whether the public trusts their developers or those responsible for ensuring public safety. The comments contain numerous references not just to Oxitec, but to agriculture giant Monsanto, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and British Petroleum: “I am fed up with Monsanto and other biotech companies,” said one.
Given the complexity of most emerging technologies, many people will fall back on this simple trust test, and most corporations, and increasingly, government organizations, will lose.
• Nature. Many people saw the GM mosquitoes as a violation of nature’s order, commenting, “Why do all these big companies all seem to think that they know what’s better than Mother Nature?” “You can’t mess with Mother Nature and not have something bad happen; they don’t know what they’re doing!”
Commenters pointed to a number of examples, including invasive species common in Florida, such as the melaleuca plant (originally introduced to dry out swampy land) and giant pythons, and other unwelcome visitors like Africanized honeybees, the Mediterranean fruit fly (a scourge in California) and Asian beetles and carp. People emphasized that a true “test release” is impossible. “Once living organisms are released into the environment they cannot be recalled, nor do we know what results and impacts may occur,” one commenter said.
• Permission. Decades of research on risk perceptions have shown that people differentiate between “voluntary” risks, which we willfully undertake, and “non-voluntary” risks, which are imposed upon us. People will smoke themselves to death while fighting against a nearby factory emitting pollutants.
In this case, Key West inhabitants clearly saw the government and the company imposing their will on the population. “We were never asked if we wanted GMOs released into our environment . . . there is very little democracy left if we have no voice,” one commenter said. Another asked, “Who wants to be a human Guinea pig?” Another added, “We are not lab rats!”
Interestingly, the other side of the risk equation, Dengue fever, was never mentioned. This may be because the actual number of cases in Florida totaled seven in 2011 and 58 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the tropics and subtropics, as many as 100 million people are infected yearly, but for many people in Florida, Dengue fever is an abstraction; Oxitec and their mosquitoes pose the risk.
Clearly, there was a significant lack of information about impacts and uncertainties in the Key West case. Some people asked: “Where is the unbiased, third-party, peer-reviewed research on effectiveness and safety of GM mosquitoes?” But given the biases, trust deficit, and dynamics of the situation, it is doubtful whether more information would have reduced public opposition.
As scientists work on more dramatic modifications of organisms in areas like synthetic biology, the Key West case should serve as a lesson, as should the growing public opposition to GM foods in states like California, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and Vermont.
Getting the science right won’t help if we get the public engagement wrong.
David Rejeski is the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar’s Science & Technology Innovation Program. Eleonore Pauwels is a research scholar with the program.