A recent report about a new genetically modified (GMO) houseplant that purifies the air in your home started me thinking about the social acceptability of GMO plants. The general public is mostly against them and yet 85% of scientists see no problem with them. I think that the public is against GMO for a couple of reasons; they don’t understand them and there is no direct benefit for them.
But what if a GMO hit closer to home? Would the general public accept it, if it provided some real benefits?
The genetically modified houseplant seemed like a perfect candidate to try a little social experiment. Would people use the plant if it removed toxins from the air in their home and there were no possible health or environmental concerns?
GMO Houseplant Purifies Air
Researchers at the University of Washington have genetically modified a common houseplant, the pothos ivy or devil’s ivy, to remove chloroform and benzene from the air. The modification was accomplished by inserting a rabbit gene into the plant.
More about the GMO houseplant: GMO Houseplants; Will They Purify the Air in Your Home?
This gene is found in all mammals, including humans. It is active in our livers, where it produces a protein that helps us remove alcohol from our system. Clearly, this gene poses no health risk to us, even if we accidentally ate the plant.
The pothos ivy does not flower in temperate climates so there is zero risk that the genes will be spread through pollen, at least in colder climates.
Two of the main concerns of the general public about GMO plants is that they might be toxic if we eat them and secondly, that the gene can escape into the environment and create supper plants. Neither of these concerns exist with this plant.
Canada has approved the plant for sale.
To be clear;
- House plants do almost nothing to clean the air in our homes. This is a common myth which is now completely debunked, but still believed by most people.
- This new GMO pothos ivy will also not clean the air in your home, at least not yet. Future generations may be more effective at removing VOCs from the air and may be useful, but even the researchers admit, more work is needed before this plant will do much in the home.
Would Gardeners Buy a GMO Houseplant?
I thought it would be interesting to see if gardeners would buy this plant if it did work. This GMO is unique in that the usual arguments against GMO do not apply in this case. I posted the following question in the Canadian Gardeners Facebook Group.
Would you use GMO houseplants if they purified the air in your home? Why or why not?
Scientists have created a GMO pothos ivy by inserting a rabbit gene into the plant. This increases the plants ability to remove benzene and chloroform from the air. It is not good enough yet to make any difference to the air in your home, but it might work in the future.
They have approval to sell the plant in Canada.
Note: this rabbit gene is the same as a human gene found in our liver.
This was a unique group for several reasons. Most of the members are Canadian and the plant is approved for sale in Canada. This group is also much more science based than most gardening Facebook Groups, and we don’t let too many myths go by without some comment.
50% of the people who replied with a main comment would buy the plant.
I also placed this question in other gardening groups and got about the same response.
No GMO Houseplants – Why?
Reading the comments is quite informative. Most of the NO comments either gave no logical reason, or gave a reason that clearly shows they don’t understand GMOs.
The first comment is typical:
“I think it’s so weird to cross plants and animals. I don’t want to support GMO products at all because the overall side effects are widely unknown and the ones we know about are bad”.
“No, because it’s weird” – is not a very logical reason.
“GMO – overall side effects are widely unknown” – not true.
“the ones we know about are bad” – not true.
More NO comments:
“Mother Nature knows best, and I do wish that these so called scientists would stop messing with genetics.”
“No GMO monsters”
Some of the no comments were more logical;
“For me the answer is no. But I was thinking about a photograph that I saw of a city in China where everyone was wearing masks because the air quality is so poor. Would these plants save lives. “
Yes to GMO Houseplants – Why?
In general, people who accept GMO, and in this case would buy the plant, give more logical reasons. This is a good example of a reply from someone who took the time to research the information, and made an informed decision.
“It says on CNN Philippines that this plant has already been approved to sell in Canada, I just Googled it! It also says ALL Mammals carry this gene and it is the same Enzyme that makes our Liver work yes!
and from someone else:
“A gene from a rabbit is not going to hurt anyone”
Discussing a Controversial Topic
The approach people take to discuss a controversial topic is interesting. In most cases, one side uses logic and facts to make their case. The other side uses heart and emotion to make theirs. I have found this true in most discussions.
The topic of abortion is again in the news and it reminds me of a discussion many years ago. My wife and I were in a room of very religious people. Everyone, except us were clearly against abortion and they went on about it for quite some time. They did not make one logical argument, it was all emotional. My wife and I knew enough to stay quiet but we discussed it later with rational, logical arguments – yes we are pro.
GMO, Roundup, use of synthetic fertilizers are just some gardening topics that are hotly contested. One side uses facts and logic, and the other emotion. How many people hate Roundup because Monsanto is perceived to be a bad company? That may in fact be true, but that has nothing to do with the validity of using Roundup. It does not become toxic just because you hate Monsanto.
The other approach that is common is that one side will voice their opinion and maybe present some pseudofacts. The other dispels them with references. The first side ignores the references and presents some different pseudofacts, which are again quashed. It is almost as if they don’t really believe the pseudofacts but are hoping they will persuade someone. After several cycles the first side gives up.
It is rare to see both sides use logic. I think that is one reason, it becomes so hard for people to agree on a topic. Logic does not persuade emotion, and vice versa.
GMO Attitudes are Changing
When I did this experiment, I expected 80% of the people to be unwilling to buy the plant. Finding that 50% are now willing to consider a GMO in their own home is encouraging and good news.
Some researchers have identified the seven or so genes responsible for the good taste in tomatoes. They could create a good tasting GMO tomato in a year, but decided against that due to the public’s dislike for GMOs. Instead they will use rapid gene testing and cross pollination to accomplish the same thing in twice the time. Genetically, we will end up in the same place, but it will sell better. A complete waste of our resources – but one that is necessary.
In large part much of the anti-GMO movement is a function of the anti-science attitudes of today. I don’t really understand this movement since the minute someone gets sick many turn to the scientific chemicals we call drugs.
The reality is that GMO plants will become a major part of our lives in the future. They have the potential to deliver all kinds of beneficial chemicals and drugs into our daily diet. I can see a carrot that prevents cancer in your future.