Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Giovanni Tagliabue, Carugo
(Como) Italia, giovanni.tagliabue@uniedi,com
North American Journal of Psychology, 2016, Vol. 18, No. 2, 283-294.
Nature as a Totem, “Genetically Modified
Organisms” as a Contemporary Taboo
Independent researcher. No academic or corporate affiliation
The rejection of so-called “Genetically Modified Organisms” by its
opponents sometimes shows interesting underlying psychological
mechanisms. The integrity of Nature, allegedly jeopardized by certain
biotechnological methods used for agricultural purposes, looks like a
totem, and tinkering with the DNA is seen as violating a taboo; images
and feelings of purity in danger may arise. Most “traditional” taboos are
well defined, but “GMOs” are a pseudo-subject, because the border
between recombinant DNA organisms and other biotechnological
processes is blurred, mixed and moving: confusion is added to
arbitrariness. A sort of para-religious attitude is evident in several “anti-
GMO” calls, with aggressive tones. Believers in the “GMO” taboo, as is
common in intolerant religions, not only avoid the objects of their
repugnance, but want to force everyone to do so: they too often succeed,
as recombinant DNA crops are frequently forbidden by law, denying
freedom of choice to producers and consumers.
The Term "GMO(s)" Has No Semantic-scientific Value
Technologies and their outcomes, in their incessantly changing
dynamics, must be constantly supervised and regulated, due to the effects
they have on the environment and the frequent risks they involve for
human health. Even more regulation is needed for biotechnologies,
whether they are “green” (agricultural), “red” (medical-pharmaceutical),
or “white” (industrial).
In the agri-food area, various techniques have been used for millennia
with the aim of changing and improving plants and animals. The
traditional methods – crossing, hybridization, grafting – are still used, but
in recent decades new and powerful means boosted the production of
food, feed and fiber: advanced lab techniques such as tissue culture,
physical/chemical mutagenesis and recombinant DNA approaches were
developed. More or less direct and targeted ways are currently used to
manipulate microorganisms, cells, seeds, or genomes, in order to cancel
undesirable characteristics (i.e. allergenicity or toxicity) or to add useful
phenotypic traits (e.g. resistance to pests, herbicide tolerance, improved
nutritional properties, better performance under abiotic stress such as
flooding, drought, heat, climate change).
284 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
Since the mid 1970s, scientists have been recommending any
evaluative and regulatory approach in regard of biotechnologies (“green”
or otherwise) to be focused on the pros and cons of each single product.
The peculiar characteristics of new varieties of plants or microorganisms
or animals do not derive from the processes used to create them
(Ammann, 2014; Tagliabue, 2015). The calls of geneticists and biologists
(Barton, Crandon, Kennedy & Miller, 1997; Miller, 2009; Potrykus,
2010), the numerous statements issued by scientific societies (APS 2001;
ASCB 2009; ASM 2000; ASPB 2006; NRS 2004)
, do not urge for a
general, hazardous deregulation of biotechnologies; instead, life scientists
reasonably recommend that each new organism, obtained via any
method, be examined and assessed according to its unique profile of risks
and benefits - ecological, economic, or related to human and animal
Against this background, the expression “genetically modified
organisms” is basically meaningless. It was coined as a shortcut to
indicate a mixed pile of agri-food products (mostly crops and
vegetables), which are created using different methods to slightly modify
their genetic makeup (to “recombine” or “splice” one or a few sequences
of their DNA), often adding genes taken from other species
(transgenesis) or created ex-novo (synthetic biology).
But “GMO(s)” is an inconsistent term, for many reasons. There are at
least five problems with any attempted definition. 1. The pseudo-
category is arbitrary, insofar as it does not cover many recombinant DNA
products which belong to other areas of biotechnologies, i.e. “red”
(pharmaceutical: e.g. insulin from engineered bacteria) or “white”
(industrial: e.g. enzymes for detergents); and even “green” DNA-spliced
products such as some food ingredients (e.g. chymosin for making
cheese), strangely enough, are not included in the “GMO” rickety fence.
2. The bogus concept is illogical, because the same traits (e.g., for crops:
resistance to pests, tolerance to herbicides) can often be obtained via
techniques which are not pigeon-holed under the “GMO” umbrella
The watershed between what is a “GMO” and what is not is shifting and
confused, and even more so because new techniques are advancing at a
: “with the advance of technology, the distinction between
genetic modification and other plant biotechnological techniques
gradually blurs” (COGEM 2006, p. 4). For instance, transitory states may
occur in which a genetic modification is purposely provisional
: it is "a
GMO", no it isn't, maybe it is, only for a bit, just for a while – useless
Procrustean terminological waste of time... 4. There is no common
denominator to unify or at least provide a common ground for so many
different products and biotechnological processes. 5. When fruits and
grains from “GMO” plants are processed, the results are often
Tagliabue. “GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS” 285
indistinguishable from the same “non-GMO” products: e.g. syrup, oil,
starch from maize or sugar from sugar beets do not contain DNA.
Any effort to give some coherence to such bungled semantic
confusion is hopeless. There is no such thing as “GMOness”!
Even less scientific is the will to attribute a negative (or positive)
connotation to the motley bunch. Not a single peer-reviewed paper has
been published which tries to give theoretical justifications for
considering the direct DNA-tinkering with agri-food plants, animals or
microorganisms as inherently dangerous
(or indeed safe). As for the
most frequently raised concern, the alleged unknown long-term effects,
those who worry about that do not offer the slightest clue (a science-
based one, i.e. a possible biochemical mechanism) why a genetic ticking
bomb should be hidden inside “GMOs” – as ill-defined as they are – and
not in the DNA of other biotech agricultural outcomes, such as those
created via mutagenesis: we are talking of a few thousand
cultivated varieties) which were obtained – and new ones are frequently
added to the list – by brutally scrambling the genomes, exposing cells
and seeds to nasty chemicals or irradiation. Fortunately, there is no
epistemological indication to justify a generic and a priori fear of any
green biotechnology process or technique while, at the same time, no
such attempt can be devoid of the risk of failure.
To be clear, the confirmed safety of each single product coming from
biotechnologies (recombinant DNA or otherwise; agricultural or
otherwise) does not warrant the belief that a negative impact on the
environment or health cannot appear in other future products, even if
they are very similar. It is correct to say that the outcomes from biotech
manipulations (“GMO” or otherwise) are unpredictable: yet, while this is
true, it is also irrelevant. We do not need preliminary and impossible
certainty about the safety of this or that green biotechnology method: the
accurate examination of the conclusions from each individual experiment
can give us a decent guarantee that the introduction into the environment,
and/or into the food and feed chains, of new agri-food inventions takes
place at minimal risk: because, if this or that new vegetal variety, or
micro-organism, or animal, proves to be unsatisfactory, we will simply
discard it. That is exactly what we have done in the past in various cases,
getting rid of ill-fated “GMO” varieties of barley, canola, maize, potato,
rice, wheat, etc. and traditional ones, of squash, potato, celery
(Haslberger, 2003, p. 739-740; Kuiper, Kleter, Noteborn & Kok, 2001, p.
. Here, the meaningless attempt to create a gap between
recombinant DNA cultivars and other similar products is fully evident, as
it is replaced by a meaningful divide between healthy foods/feeds and
problematic or invalid ones – which end up in the waste bin.
286 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
The oft-cited acronym “GMOs” is therefore void of semantic and
scientific reference: it does not indicate a group of products, with even a
minimal amount of homogeneity. Thus, the pseudo-category cannot be
subject to any all-encompassing evaluation in regard to the supposed
safety, or lack of safety, of “GMOs” as a whole. As an illustration of the
futility of attempting such an evaluation, consider the results of a poll
given to a group of adolescents. The results showed that they generally
disapproved the use of GMOs, but they also indicated that they did not
know what GMOs are (Jurkiewicz, Zagórski, Bujak, Lachowski &
Florek-Łusczki, 2014): which is perfectly logic, because “GMOs” as a
supposed whole are not “something”, an ensemble with a minimal
coherence. The same consideration applies to the important issue of the
environmental impact of any new cultivar or animal; again, the necessary
assessment must be done case by case: "genetically engineered
organisms should be evaluated and regulated according to their biological
properties (phenotypes), rather than the genetic techniques used to
produce them.” (Tiedje et al., 1989).
Therefore, a supposed watershed between rDNA products and the rest
of agri-food world is unscientific, as factually and theoretically
inexistent: that tangled mix of biotech techniques and products which has
been contortedly framed as “GMO(s)” is incoherent on epistemological
grounds and counterproductive in the real world.
Nature as a Totem (purity), "GMOs" as a Taboo (danger)
Generic fears regarding this bogeyman are widespread: prudence is
often invoked – and frequently stated by law – to recombinant DNA
organisms and not to all the others.
The hyper-cautious approach may be dictated by ideological, anti-
industrial activism and/or economic motivations (e.g. the aim to promote
“organic” foods). But sometimes, the headstrong refusal of genetic
engineering seems to be linked to the concept of Nature and its integrity,
therefore showing peculiar psychological characteristics: in the minds of
certain opponents, Nature is a totem, “GMOs” are a taboo.
A totem is some physical thing or idea that can be considered sacred.
The word refers to natural or supernatural entities, endowed with
particular power and influence over human life. Some people show a
deep respect for Nature: this important concept is often felt as a profound
metaphysical reality, endowed with a vague sacredness. Consequently,
any apparent attack on the integrity of Nature, full of indefinite but
intense value, i.e. this sort of totem, is felt very negatively.
A taboo is “a social or religious custom placing prohibition or
restriction on a particular thing or person” (Oxford English Dictionary).
It is worth noting that the anathema on “GMOs” pertains to food, or more
Tagliabue. “GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS” 287
broadly to agriculture: an area in which the relationship between Homo
sapiens and nature, even in contemporary urban societies, is still deep
and very strong. Since biotechnologies that directly manipulate DNA,
which is rightly perceived as the very code of life, are felt by many as
utterly unnatural, we can understand why those interventions may arouse
images of violation, invasiveness, or even something worse: “the anti-
GMO discourse portrays transgenic organisms in terms of impurity and
taboo breaking. They are referred to as pollution or contamination and
are considered to be contagious and infective. They are described as
trespassing natural limits and transgressing boundaries, and sometimes as
sinful and profaning sacred limits” (Kwiecinski 2009, p. 1189).
Sometimes the perceived “unnaturalness” is worthy of respect because it
is sincerely linked to personal values; on many other occasions it is just
rhetoric (Dragojlovic & Einsiedel, 2012).
Religious motivations are almost always absent in the proclaimed
motivations of protesters. The dissenters’ mix is usually expressed by
those who are indignant that something must be left untouched; this
attitude is better understood if we consider a mental approach which is
para-religious. Anthropologist Mary Douglas (Douglas, 1966-2002)
introduced another pair of terms charged with arcane halo: purity and
danger. In her writings, the risks of an attack on purity are played out in
the dynamics between dirty and clean (to be intended also in regard to
social relationships and in a symbolic rather than physical sense).
Exhortations not to get embroiled with the “GMO” taboo, an action that
would jeopardize the totem of alleged naturalness, a value that traditional
agricultural practices supposedly respect, are either worried, resentful, or
vehement; but such admonishments usually don’t have a specifically
religious character, except for some situations where theological-
spiritualistic opinions are affirmed: “chemical, processed and gmo foods
are also an abomination” to God himself (Ben Daniel 2005). Thus, the
condemnation of direct interventions on genomes does not usually refer
to sacredness in a strict sense, but strong reactions emerge because the
integrity of the totem (purity) is deemed threatened by the infraction of
the taboo (danger). We can understand the plausibility of the strong
statement made by neurologist and Nobel laureate Rita Levi Montalcini
(quoted in Diffidenti, 2009): the generic, indefinite fear of “GMOs” is “a
form of superstition.” This term indicates attitudes and biases which are
not logically or factually grounded: since “GMO(s)” is even a
semantically vacuous expression, the term “superstition” seems
288 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
Arbitrariness and Confusion
One can understand anxieties linked to transgenic admixtures of DNA
belonging to taxonomically remote species: splicing genes from bacteria
into the genome of plants may be perceived as more unnatural than
similar operations in which sexually compatible organisms are involved.
Transgenesis raises more worries than cisgenesis: “One of the major
concerns of the general public about transgenic crops relates to the
mixing of genetic materials between species that cannot hybridize by
natural means.” (Bæksted Holme, Wendt & Holm 2013, p. 395).
Yet, this fear of alleged breaking down of untouchable fences would
be understandable where we are dealing with transgenesis; it shouldn’t be
valid for the “knocking-out” of genes which are already part of the
genomes (for instance to eliminate allergenic traits) or the “switching-on”
of others (to create or fortify metabolic paths in order to increase
nutrients). Nor is transgenesis usually refused when it applies to “red”
(medical-pharmaceutical) or “white” (industrial) biotechnologies, as I
have already pointed out. Therefore, a basic characteristic of the “GMO”
taboo is to be not only arbitrary, but also confused: “In agricultural
crops, products of rDNA [recombinant DNA] technology were lumped
together into one ominous category, regardless of trait, genetic event, or
species” (Herring, 2010, p. 80).
This random and ill-circumscribed selectivity can be compared to the
many lists of forbidden objects and behaviors which anthropologists have
found and described in various cultures. As an example, consider some
alimentary prescriptions of the Jewish community in ancient times:
“Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among
the animals, you may eat.” “But anything in the seas or the rivers that
does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and
of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you.” “All
winged insects that go on all fours are detestable to you.
Yet among the
winged insects that go on all fours you may eat those that have jointed
legs above their feet, with which to hop on the ground.“ These are only a
few animals from a detailed list. In line with reference to all these
abominable beasts, “whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until
the evening” (Leviticus, XI, 3, 10, 20-21, 24). The influential leader(s)
who drew up these disconcerting distinctions certainly had no need to
justify them with the believers on whom they were imposed: it is well
known that throughout human history and in very different areas and
cultures, forced and violent repression of any kind of heresy has been all
Thus, “GMOs” are a very peculiar taboo, which differs in one
important aspect from the examples I have quoted. While the Old
Testament author goes into minute depictions of the “abominable”
Tagliabue. “GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS” 289
beasts, the hyperbolic “anti-GMO” militants proclaim their complete
disdainful aversion, tarring everything with the same brush: for instance,
the blanket rejection is expressed with generic slogans (“Say no to
GMOs!”) and with the push to establish “GMO free” regions. However,
the followers of this peculiar approach would have trouble in defining
their moving target, the common denominator which is supposed to unite
such objects. With “GMOs”, arbitrariness is mixed with confusion.
Sometimes, in “anti-GMO” proclamations, the para-religious tones
are mixed with an unintelligible obscurity: a prominent activist,
supporting in Hawaii a draft law aimed at banning any “GMO” from the
main island, urged “act before it’s too late” (Harmon, 2014). “Too late”
for what? No explanation is given; but such intensely threatening
admonishments work wonders. Many bystanders fall under the spell of
those who call for respect of the taboo in defense of the totem. This
important psychological tendency is hard-wired in the brains of our
species (Buekens & Boudry, 2015; Pennycook, Cheyne, Barr, Koehler &
If there are “anti-GMOers” who live their taboo with the related
emotions and sensations of a totem that is at risk, of purity in danger, we
can understand the tones that permeate their positions: they speak out like
people who are reacting to an offense, often infused with a presumption
and arrogance that can lead them to insult. Prominent activist Vandana
Shiva links the alleged danger of “GMOs” against the purity of “organic”
(read: “natural”) operations with images of sexual violence: “saying
farmers should be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic
farms is like saying rapists should have freedom to rape”.
I end this brief illustration of some psychological aspects of the
opposition to “GMOs” with a note on the frequent fantasies, which are
generic and indefinite, regarding health risks supposedly linked to a
mixed bunch of various agricultural biotechnologies. Excessive,
obsessive, and unsettling worry for one’s health is an illness in itself:
medical science has called it hypochondria. Such unwelcome, continuous
fear regarding threats to one’s health often appears as part of a complex
syndrome, which includes anxiety and depression. From a psychological
perspective it may be defined as a defense mechanism against a false
danger, either external or internal (Kukleta 1991; Zanarini &
Frankenburg, 1994). The contrary of the placebo effect is called the
nocebo effect; as the former shows that the positive belief in a conviction
can have a very beneficial influence, the latter proves the opposite: the
“imaginary invalid” may be more difficult to treat than a real invalid
(Bingel, 2014; Häuser, Hansen, & Enck 2012). A contemporary variant
of hypochondria, linked to a sort of health craze, has recently been
described: “Orthorexia nervosa” is defined as “a condition characterized
290 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY
by disordered eating behavior generated by a pathologic obsession for
biologically pure and healthy nutrition,” in particular “to avoid certain
foods that might contain genetically-modified ingredients, as well as
those containing significant amounts of fat, sugar, salt, or other undesired
components” (Moroze, Dunn, Holland, Yager & Weintraub, 2014, p.
297). How absurd, but all too real, the “GMO” pseudo-category is.
Vigilance over the level of fats, salt and sugars in foods, if it does not
become a constantly nagging worry, is a good thing, but what does this
perfectly normal attention to one’s diet have to do with avoiding
An Ethical-political Conclusion
In democracies, singles and groups are free to practice their rituals
and to abstain from what they consider to be spiritual or health dangers,
although there may be no scientific evidence to support them. For
instance, if some people believe that small quantities of alcohol are
noxious for the body, they can just avoid drinking: good for them; but
they must not try to pass off such stances as empirically grounded, let
alone seek to dictate other people’s behaviour. Of course we must
distinguish between reasonable restrictions (e.g. limited consumption of
alcohol for minors, drivers) and arbitrary proscription: regulation is
rational, prohibition is dogmatic.
The problem with the “GMO” controversy is that opponents of
“GMOs” are not happy with eschewing them quietly, but want to impose
such abstention on everybody: hence, the push of many activist
organizations to ban recombinant DNA agri-food produce. That aim is
often achieved, through laws which are often quite strange (e.g. in the
European Union the cultivation of “GMO” crops is mostly forbidden,
while the importation of grains and beans from the same plants is
massive. See Europabio, 2014). It is the same situation that we meet
when we compare tolerant versus intolerant religions: believers of the
former don’t impose their precepts and prohibitions, while followers of
the latter try to state those rules as laws.
My conclusion is therefore ethical and political: while those who see
"GMOs" as a taboo are free to avoid them, they should not want to
extend their prescriptions and proscriptions to the whole of society: such
an antidemocratic outcome is just what they obtain, when the law forbids
the cultivation of recombinant DNA crops, inflicting a wound to a
rationally regulated free market and denying the freedom of choice to
producers and consumers.
I do not intend to denigrate or scoff at anybody, nor do I want to
belittle harmless cultural attitudes or beliefs. But we have the duty to be
truthful, and above all to avoid twisting concepts (e.g. naturalness or
Tagliabue. “GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS” 291
purity) into conclusions and policy decisions whose burdens -
psychological and otherwise - fall on the shoulders of all persons as
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Many other position statements at www.isaaa.org/ search/results.
url=www.isaaa.org%2F&ref=&ss=144j20736j2. See also proaction
transhuman. wordpress.com/2013/07/24/why-am-i-pro-gmo/ and www.
We should stick to William James’ golden maxim: "A difference that
makes no difference is no difference at all"!
The latest group of techniques, which is already proving to be
revolutionary, is CRISPR: See Voytas & Gao, 2014.
Delitto perfetto is the witty name (exploiting the assonance with the
term deletion) given to one particular procedure in which, at a certain
step, a few DNA sequences are inserted in the genome of a target plant,
and then cancelled. See Storici & Resnick, 2006.
Of course, the situation is different if we consider “black”
biotechnologies (dealing with pathogens for military purposes) or even
some objects of “red” biotechnologies (e.g. dangerous viruses or bacteria
that must be kept under strict control).
A complete database at http://mvgs.iaea.org. See Dick & Jones, 2012.
See also other examples of “Discontinued Transgenic Products”, in a
list which is not recent but valid: cls.casa.colostate.edu/