By Grant Jacobs 09/12/2015

From 2001 to 2014 there has been a big shift to acceptance of genetic modification, from 92% opposed to genetic engineering (GE) to 80% accepting it.

Prof. Jean Fleming,[1] presented at the recent Science Communicator’s Association of New Zealand annual conference some results from Katherine Hope’s 2014 Masters thesis,[1] which covered a survey of New Zealander’s responses to genetic engineering.

The relevant passage from Katherine’s thesis abstract is,

In 2001, the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification had found 92% of public submitters were completely opposed to GE. The survey reported in this thesis [in 2014] found 80% of the 609 respondents are now accepting, or completely accepting of GE which indicates that public opinion towards GE is shifting towards acceptance.

(A copy of the full abstract is also in the Footnotes below.[2])

It’s good to see some numbers put to this. The shift observed is quite substantial.

Jean Fleming suggested that this indicated the value of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (of which she was a member of), initiating a shift in understanding over time.

In addition to this, my thoughts are that the shift may reflect a better appreciation over time that there are few food safety concerns, and that little of concern has occurred over the decade-plus between these surveys.

Towards the end of the abstract, it notes that some people still have concerns about large corporations,

the main concern New Zealanders have about GE is large corporations, like Monsanto, controlling the scientists and their products

A suggestion: if large corporations are a concern, support the small players.

Newer techniques can enable smaller groups to tackle goals that once were limited to very large organisations. Many of these new plant varieties are being developed by relatively small research teams.

In the case of New Zealand, any home-grown efforts would most likely be the work of our Crown Research Institutes (CRIs).

Our CRI teams are small by world-wide standards, yet have developed a number of new varieties over the years.

It’s also worth remembering that a number of these new plant varieties are the work of charities, not commercial companies.


1. Retired, but it has to be said like so many retired academics she sounds as if she is still doing a fair bit! Jean Fleming was Katherine Hope’s Masters thesis advisor. Katherine’s thesis was taken at the Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago.

2. To spare the small effort of tracking to the University website, the full abstract reads:

When science enters the public domain it can often lead to controversy if it raises questions of power, knowledge and control. This thesis uses examples of these socioscientific issues to evaluate the positive and negative impacts of science on society. The ability of socioscientific issues to promote critical thinking and produce democratic citizens is also discussed in the context of science education and science communication. New Zealand’s experience with Genetic Engineering (GE) is used as the basis for a survey on New Zealanders’ current attitudes towards GE. In 2001, the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification had found 92% of public submitters were completely opposed to GE. The survey reported in this thesis found 80% of the 609 respondents are now accepting, or completely accepting of GE which indicates that public opinion towards GE is shifting towards acceptance. This change in opinion may be due to the overwhelmingly approval of GE by scientific institutions worldwide, though the main concern New Zealanders have about GE is large corporations, like Monsanto, controlling the scientists and their products.

Other articles on GM in Code for life

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

Kumara are transgenic

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one

GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report

Proposed changes to GMO regulation leave major problems unaddressed

0 Responses to “Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders”

  • The big GMO corporations just changing the the words they use to market GMO does not imply that people accept GMO.
    There has been no shift, just more cover ups and concealment in GMO’s industry.
    Certainly there is much like the doctors support of tobacco a high rate of acceptance of GMO by many scientists.The money and funding makes some people accept the unacceptable.
    Terminator technology, untested GMO mosquitoes released, I find it unacceptable

  • Hi Anabel,

    The survey is of members of the New Zealand public, not senior employees of large agricultural corporations overseas or “scientists”. They’re not getting money from anyone for what they think.

    These claims of being influenced by ‘money’ are put by conspiracy-type websites as an evidence-free way of pointing fingers. Put another way, it’s just mud-throwing – which isn’t helpful to discussion. I’ve seen many, many people involved in developing new agricultural varieties ask “where is this money?”

    “Terminator technology,”

    A so-called ‘terminator’ technology was puchased by Monsanto, but has not been used in crops available for growing.

    “untested GMO mosquitoes”

    Are you referring to the mosquitos that are to be used in an trial in Florida? They’re not “untested”. These have already had field trials elsewhere, following earlier laboratory tests. Those tests are part of why the FDA are considering approving a trial in Florida.

    • Shills!! Shills!! Monsanto paid you all!

      I don’t have any real arguments to make over the use of gene modification in farming, so I find it useful to simply accuse those who don’t share my views of unsubstantiated bias.

    • I would like some clarification on your opening statement that there has been a shift to 80% being accepting of GE. As the thesis isn’t available online could you please tell me what methodology was used to select the 609 members of the NZ public, and what questions were specifically asked?
      Pure Hawke’s Bay conducted a survey in 2012 through Colmar Brunton, the methodology and questions all readily available online for anyone’s perusal, and the overwhelming result was the opposite of the findings of this thesis. Can you confirm that there is research coming out of Otago Uni commerce dept. that has used a definition of GE extending to the lab(production of Interferon from lab based bacterial cultures for instance)? If this thesis uses the same definition of GE then the results need to be interpreted with that in mind.

      • Prof. Jean Fleming related in her talk that it was a telephone survey, with efforts to be unbiased and correct for the main demographic factors.

        I’d imagine you can quibble about details, as you invariably can, but I’d be surprised if you could turn 80% into, say, 50% – i.e. I would have thought it unlikely that the overall conclusion of a shift to a majority accepting GE would change.

        When I get access to the full thesis, it’ll be interesting to read the more detailed breakdown of the results – as my article notes, I was reporting from the conference presentation.

        It’s worth noting the poll you refer to isn’t about acceptance or not of GE itself, but about perceptions of establishing an ‘organic’ region as a marketing tool, and the questions clearly reflect that. That question mostly plays on a notion that growing crops orginally developed using GE will (somehow) preclude growing ‘organic’ crops, rather than something about acceptance of GE as a means to develop new crops or not.

        • GE Free and organic are not one in the same thing actually Grant. As you can see from the Colmar Brunton poll it was asking questions about GE food crops.

          • “GE Free and organic are not one in the same thing”

            Fair enough, but while we’re on that I think it’s easily noted that the two are widely played on (or conflated) by ‘organic’ or ‘green’ interests. (That may not appeal, but you’ve got to be honest about these things.)

            Replace non-GM for ‘organic’ and I think the point I was trying to make that the poll you point to is not about acceptance of GE itself or not stands, e.g.

            “That question mostly plays on a notion that growing crops orginally developed using GE will (somehow) preclude growing non-GM crops, rather than something about acceptance of GE as a means to develop new crops or not.”

  • Was there any clue as to what shifted them? I mean did they read stuff? Hear/see media? Talk to friends?

    More likely, though, as Jeffe says, they just paid off the whole country. Yeah, that’s it.

    • One reason public opinion has changed is that a generation of New Zealanders have been taught about GE in schools. The kids have learned enough about the subject to make a decision.
      Against that background of deeper knowledge the same kids live in a world where not one single incidence of harm from GMOs has occurred. Given the effort put in by the anti-GMO community if there was any harm they would have exposed it. Instead you have a safe proven technology that this generation understands much better than most folks.
      It really isn’t surprising that public opinion has changed with time.
      And yeah I know you knew all that.

      • So what is your feeling Bart about the contractual limitation by Monsanto of publishing research finding that don’t suit their case? Because I’ve actually seen findings – unpublished – that suggest a concern.

        But then, we should trust commercial science of course. It has such a good record.

        • Hi Chris, I’ve seen many such comments about “hidden problems” and while I am also reasonably suspicious of big business I honestly cannot believe that with all the effort put into looking for harm by both the scientific community and the anti-GMO lobby that not one proven incident has shown up.
          You’d have to argue that there is some massive incredibly skilled conspiracy able to hide any such evidence.
          Bear in mind that Monsanto is not actually that big a company, Wholefoods is bigger. can you imagine the resources they’d have to employ to hide all evidence of harm. Consider that big oil failed to hide climate change from us and they have far greater resources than Monsanto.
          The much simpler hypothesis is that, exactly as all the scientists have said, GMO technology is safe.

          • Hi Bart. If you cannot publish material because of patent rights, then you do not have open information.

            But there is a separate issue – the metaphysics involved. The deterministic view of Richard Dawkins (one gene one trait at its most mechanical) is competing with the complex adaptive systems view (one gene, many traits, depending on all sorts of contingencies and combinations). Stephen Jay Gould wrote of this in his NY Times article The Human genome project found 30-40,000 genes to 140,000 odd traits. So this idea that we ‘know’ is complete bunkum. Jay Gould’s Harvard colleague Lewontin also wrote against the deterministic mechanical idea (Cartesian Modernity believing that things are reducible, when they are not within many systems – life forms, ecosystems, social systems, economic systems particularly) in The Ideology of Biology.

            Scientists ought to take the History of Science & Philosophy of Science courses. It would make us realise that what is ‘true’ and certain in one age, is bunkum the next.

            So, no, I will not exhibit my ‘faith’ in science while the metaphysics is so stuck in a Cartesian past (never mind the 3 great advances of the 20th C – (Relativity, Uncertainy, Complexity). More particularly when a lot of money and politics is involved.

          • Hi Chris

            You shouldn’t assume scientists don’t read the history of science.

            I really see no point in continuing this because if I understand you correctly you are saying that all scientific data is suspect.

            This does leave you free to believe whatever you wish which is entirely your right.

            I will point out that even if, as you claim, Monsanto does withhold data, that doesn’t explain how the rest of the scientific community has failed to find any evidence of harm.

            But as I say we clearly hold different worldviews and I wish you peace and happiness this holiday season.


          • Hi Bart
            Of course I am not saying that all scientific data is suspect – beyond the obvious falsification approach. You just can’t put it all into a big box marked ‘objective’. I don’t trust Rothman’s science either. We need to interpret from positions beyond the data – power, politics & metaphysics. And I don’t trust technology motivated by narrow ends – because technologists often have no idea of the divergent consequences, far less bother to think about it. Enough.

      • Yeah, I do know that. But I am always on the lookout for real information about what works and what doesn’t around the scicomm stuff. Most of what I can find from a research perspective consists of pros telling scientists that they’re doing it wrong. I could use more guidance on what actually makes a difference.

        That’s a good point about a generation growing up with it now. Maybe the fearmongering is less effective when people see it’s just handwaving.

  • I too want to know the questions asked and the definitions of GE used in the thesis. The marketing dept from Otago University used the broadest definitions possible – yes, including bacterial cultures confined to labs – and conflated acceptance of that to acceptance of field crops of GE. The same marketing dept protagonists also used the oddest questions about nuclear power and armaments to conclude that people didn’t worry about nuclear power or arms in NZ. It was like listening to the ACT party spokesperson from a university don hiding his subjective dreams behind delusions of objectivity. I simply do not believe these finding. And for the record, I have no problems with GE in bacterial cultures confined to labs, but I’ve seen visiting researchers who could not publish finding because of the real fear of being sued by Monsanto et al. detail horror stories of deformities from GE food, not to mention no yield increases and clear disadvantages unless you are a corporate commodity food producer at the bottom end of the market.

    • Yes, details are useful but remember I was reporting from a talk not the thesis!

      What the marketing department has or has not done really hasn‘t much to do with the survey I reported on. Extrapolating from what they’ve done on nuclear power or whatnot isn’t meaningful or helpful.

      Bear in mind that some not-in-a-field uses of organisms include those not in a research laboratory, e.g. making products in a commercial setting. Examples including making insulin, rennet for cheese, bacteria or yeast capable of producing biofuel, etc. (The point is, there isn’t quite such a clear distinction between ‘lab’ and not as is often made out.)

      • It is helpful in the the sense of context. Research is never entirely ‘objective’. Observation is theory laden. Interpretation is not simply ‘objective.’ Questions relate to world views held by researchers. If you follow Andrew Sayer, he argues that any research methodology relates to 1. a worldview (is the world reducible, mechanical or complex, adaptive – what theory do I subscribe to? etc.) 2. the research question, and 3. the method. Each influences the other. So a reducible belief, and a love of stats will generate very small questions for instance.

        In that sense, the particular context is highly relevant, particularly when there is both the scurrilous corporate dimension (we can’t research Monsanto sourced seed because of their veto contractual clauses – so no independence), and political views currently in ascendancy.

        It was not me who conflated in the same talk the high approval with GE (extending to the lab-based), and the apparent acceptance within NZ of nuclear power, etc. It was an Otago Commerce dept researcher. So it is entirely reasonable – and helpful for interpretation – for people to ask whether this research comes out of the same stable.

      • Be clear Grant, people are not generally opposed to rennet, insulin etc. You are highlighting exactly the point being made. The arguments against the use of GE in field crops is an entirely different ‘natural kind’ of thing. And if researchers are not making the appropriate distinctions, then the figures mean nothing.

        I suggest you look at the Pure Hawke’s Bay site.

  • I have seen the actual survey questions.
    They contain questions first that discuss GM generally, but secondly and separately question the respondents feeling towards GM crops and GM-containing foods.
    The responses to these questions is that roughly 60% are comfortable with these uses, 15% don’t know, 25% opposed.

    I have also seen the methods used to select respondents.
    The invitation was advertised by social media, sent to many government departments, and to each of the political party’s head offices, farming associations and religious organisations. I think we can accept that this is not going to be a perfectly random sample of NZ. However, as one of the distribution methods was to ‘please pass this survey to anyone you know who would be interested’ I think that we are likely to be selecting both ends of the opinion spectrum (and perhaps missing a bit of the middle).

    The thesis will be (should be?) publicly available on the Otago University website sometime in the near future. Not quite sure why its taking a while top get uploaded, but I guess just the all university departments a bit bit slow at this stuff. I expect that there will also be a paper published in a refereed journal in the near future.

    • Thanks for this Revel. Good point that it might just be that the university department still hasn‘t gotten around to loading up the thesis. I believe there will be a paper published at some point, too.

      Good point, too, about ‘missing in the middle’. It’s been one of my concerns about various ‘contentious’ issues is that the middle (who frequently are the large majority) are fairly hard to engage or reach. I’ve no real idea if this has been the case here, but as a generalisation perhaps the more ‘motivated’ are more inclinded to respond?

      Not doubting you, but I’ll have to wait on the methods to select respondents until I see a copy of the thesis I guess. (I try my best, but as have a hearing loss sometimes things like that are incorrectly noted from talks.)

    • …”However, as one of the distribution methods was to ‘please pass this survey to anyone you know who would be interested’ I think that we are likely to be selecting both ends of the opinion spectrum (and perhaps missing a bit of the middle).” ….

      You presume a lot Revel – that a self-selected survey will somehow balance out with some missing bits in the middle?

      Based on what you have written, this survey is complete bunkum. I suspect now that it is actually a product of the Otago Commerce Dept.

      • I think it’s really disappointing that you are making pretty awful accusations of corruption about Professor Flemming (who sat on the Royal Commission) and her Masters student.

        While any research can have technical flaws it is entirely unreasonable to insinuate corruption the way you have.

        By all means you can choose to believe that the majority of New Zealanders believe something other than what this survey shows. But have absolutely no reason to besmirch the integrity of those scientists who carried out the survey and presented the results. Such an attack does no credit to you or the position you represent.

        • Hi Bart,
          I spoke about the research. I mentioned no individuals. What I find interesting is you assuming that such a discussion means black and whites. You interpret a personal attack from a professional disagreement and asking questions (which turned out to be relevant btw). I’ve worked for people like that, and you have nowhere to turn except to shut up, or leave. And that is what has been happening in our increasingly authoritative and corporate approach to public departments and CRIs. We become Rothmans in all but name, for the sake of money and the next sale. And then you accuse those who question of personal attacks.

          And this theme of fundamentalist either-ors has been evident in this string. If you question technology, then you personally are suspect. People here have referred to ‘conspiracy theorist’ etc. Cliche responses to a complex issues. It is not an ‘either for us or against us’ situation, and I find it frankly disturbing for science that some proponents of extremely narrow technocratic approaches take the fundamentalist monochromatic approach.

          My faith in GE technocrats has not improved one iota.


  • Chris Perley make a pertinent point. GE for medical uses and laboratory confinement is totally different from the commercial growing of plants. This year US farmers who embraced GE plants as the solution to weed control and insect destruction have discovered that pesticide use has increased, weed problems from herbicide tolerance are now affecting 100 of millions of acres and insects are now destroying GE crops they were supposed to kill. This year there has been a &% move to non GE or alternative types of crops due to this. The headline is irresponsible as until there is an understanding of the questions asked and the depth of information given to the respondents of the survey we can only say that the demographic of Government organisations Federated Farmers and political head offices we know that the majority of these organisations are headed by people in favour of GE implementation in NZ. So it is good to know that 20% or 120 of the pro organisations still have concerns.

  • Claire, presumably that is a 7% move? What’s the source of that? What do you make of the increased interest this year in gene editing techniques, like Crispr?

  • “GE for medical uses and laboratory confinement is totally different from the commercial growing of plants.”

    In what way? (You don’t say.)

    The issue of needing containment or not relates to risk to the environment. It’s worth remembering that these new agricultural varieties are the ‘parent’ plants with a small number of new traits. As a consequence they share most of the properties of their parent plants. Note vice versa here: the ‘parent’ plants have much the same risks. We’ve been managing the risks of weediness and like for those plants for some time.

    You really have to look at these things case by case, rather than with sweeping generalisations as each new variety is different. You’d also want to show a risk to the environment for that variety that can’t be tackled using existing agricultural management practices. Regulatory bodies who approve use of these new varieties are well aware of these issues.

    A quick aside on (most) medical applications using microbes (e.g. bacteria, yeast) as there’s an interesting twist to these — there containment actually also applies the other way around – to exclude things from the environment that might affect the would-be medical product. That’s not about if the genetics of the organisms [GE or not] but avoiding contamination. It applies to other medical products too (and other food products for that matter too).

    “This year US farmers who embraced GE plants as the solution to weed control and insect destruction have discovered that pesticide use has increased,”

    This study suggests otherwise

    Results: “On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.”

    (More on pesticides, etc., later.)

    re “we can only say that the demographic of Government organisations Federated Farmers and political head offices”

    Revel said a wider range of audience was drawn, “social media, sent to many government departments, and to each of the political party’s head offices, farming associations and religious organisations”

    Furthermore no mention of Federated Farmers was made. You’ve added that – there’s nothing indicating if they were or were not part of the survey. (Also: we’d have to wait to see the actual work, but the results of the survey may not disclose individual participants as is commonly done. Although it’s obvious who the main political parties are! 🙂 )

    • From former EPA Senior Scientist Dr Ramon Seidler: “Addendum: Traditional Soil-Applied Insecticides Are Surging Alongside Systemic Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Genetically Engineered Corn”

      When I contacted Jean Fleming the other day she said she’d told you Grant to contact the student Katie Hope. Have you not? I’m sure if you do you’ll be able to find out if Federated Farmers were among the farming associations contacted.

  • Excuse my being slow to get back – busy time of year!

    I realise these results will run counter to long-held views for some.

    While there’s interest in Katie Hope’s thesis, it’s not as if I can influence how soon it will be available. And as Revel pointed out it might be a hold-up with the university processing it.

    I’d suggest those interested in it to wait until it’s available and they can explore what interests them for themselves.

    Theses tend to be long and a lot of work to dig material out of, so you may find it more practical to wait until a paper is published — they tend to bring out and condense the keys points.

    I’m concerned that Paula’s last reply may be read wrongly. My conversation with Jean was friendly. I’ve been informally engaging with the Centre for Science Communication, including Jean, for quite a few years now. They’re a friendly bunch of people!

  • One more (sorry): If I write more on pesticides (as I mentioned in a comment earlier), it’ll be in a separate article not as a comment here. I’ve quite a few other things I want to write on, so best not to expect it in short order either!

  • The change in attitudes is largely as a result of a publicity campaign an example of which we see in the picture at the top of this article.

    Looking for supposed benefits of GR I found an illegally conducted study in China for which scientists there were fired and one in USA lost grant money. I am wondering about the amount of fat in the diet for that study and whether it was relevant to the poor, the intended recipients.

    Look at the amount of fat in the meals for another study: in 2009 in which 5 people were trialed in a diet which contained: “A second standardized meal (lunch) was eaten by all volunteers 4 h after the breakfast meal; this second meal contained 60 g turkey meat, 50 g white bread, 20 g roasted cashew, and 100 g cucumber (peeled) salad with 15 g corn oil and 5 g vinegar (total energy: 600 kcal, 40% from fat).”

    How about pointing to something more representative, especially in terms of fat/oil of a poor diet?

    And how about a comment about the risk of transfer of antibiotic resistance marker genes when a large proportion of the diet contains them?

    Then there is the problem with changing one nutrient unnaturally as when smokers got 36% more cancer from beta carotene supplements.

    The IRRI have got permission to test the rice as far as growing it goes, but how about some proper work on safety and effectivenes in the intended diets?

    Contrary to what publicity tries to make us believe, it is not just a matter of putting in a gene to express a protein and that is all that happens. Monsanto has tended to do a safety test just on the intended protein. But genetic modification in the crops many people are eating in the USA especially, is haphazard and the strong promoter genes required to make the alien protein express also promote other genes in the genome. Attention should be given, for example, to extra hormonal effects such as whether the increased oestrogenic effect is one on the causes of increasing obesity. And the increased oestrogenic effect comes not only as a result of the actual genetic modification but also from the extra Roundup herbicide applied.

    Unless these matters are attended to this GR-2 can only be an expensive publicity stunt.

    The related claim of glyphosate safety is another part of the publicity campaign. It is kept out of public news that when glyphosate is combined with the not so bad tallowate &c to make Roundup, there is a different response.

    “Glyphosate alone is less toxic than glyphosate in a Roundup
    formulation; both glyphosate and Roundup caused cell death
    which resulted in decreased progesterone levels
    in vitro, and endocrine disruption did not precede cytotoxicity. A 24h exposure to a concentration of Glyphosate (in Roundup) similar to that
    recommended as an acceptable level for Australian drinking water
    caused significant cytotoxicity in vitro, which supports a call for
    in vivo studies to characterise the toxicity of Roundup.”

    It is from a new journal which appears good with an editorial board including someone from Dow Corning.

  • “a publicity campaign”

    Or perhaps a wide variety of independent efforts from different sources to make people more aware of the reality, rather things said on any number of advocacy websites? (Some of which are quite odd if you’re familar with the science.)

    I’m not quite sure why you’ve offered a long list of things about Golden Rice – my article makes no mention of it. The photo is just that, a photo. (We’re encouraged to put one up with each post.)

    A key to using the internet for information is not that you find something saying some particular thing (you can find some site saying pretty much anything), but how well you check what you find.

    It’s one reason why sites like Sciblogs are useful – people more familiar with the background are more able to make sure what is presented reflects how things are.

    You say a lot of things that checking would suggest otherwise. I can’t realistically tackle a long list like that. As from that I’m not exactly paid to (!), it’s the problem of facing a Gish Gallop: it’s easy to make an incorrect claim, one sentence will do, but it takes a lot more work to correct each statement. I don’t have the luxury of that sort of time.

    Just to take one as an example,

    “the strong promoter genes required to make the alien protein express also promote other genes in the genome”

    There are promoters (not ‘promoter genes’), but they don’t affect genes throughout the genome. The genes added in Golden Rice are not genes for transcription factors or the like that regulate other genes (which might mistakenly be called ‘promoter genes’), but are enzymes that allow the rice grain to produce beta carotene. (It’s worth remembering that other parts of rice like the leaves do produce beta-carotene, it’s that beta-carotene is not produced in the grain where it might be useful to those who eat it.)

  • Pictures talk thousands of words. Why did you choose that picture?

    Sorry I reversed the order of the words, should have been “gene promoters.”

    You may be right when you say, “but they don’t affect genes throughout the genome,” but what about ones a few positions along?

    You are blurring between GR1 and GR2 in you last paragraph. GR2 has inserted the maize ubiquitin promoter which can be much more potent than the former commonly used cauliflower mosaic virus construct.

    I wonder how well the effects of various stresses on plants are being assessed in GR2, and effects on the food safety:

    “Among the two types
    of ubiquitin promoters, polyubiquitin and ubiquitin exten-
    sion protein promoters, most polyubiquitin promoters had
    been shown to be induced under stress. For example, maize
    polyubiquitin promoter Ubi-1 was induced by heat shock
    (Takimoto et al. 1994)