The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Non technical abstract

 Factors explaining opposition to GMOs in France and Europe


Sylvie BONNY,

Researcher at INRA (French National Institute of Agricultural Research)

UMR d'Economie Publique INRA-INAPG,

BP 01  -  78850 GRIGNON  -  FRANCE

Tel: 33 (0)1 30 81 53 34 - Fax: 33 (0)1 30 81 53 68



The use of biotechnology in agriculture has led to a great controversy. The anti-GMO movement is strong in Europe and has spread to other non-European countries, recently even to the USA. This paper looks at the factors explaining the rejection movement in France, where it is particularly strong. It is very often said that the rejection of GMOs is only the result of poor knowledge in biology and that the public and laymen only need to be educated. However, it is necessary to analyze the causes of GMO refusal more deeply and further: such is the goal of this paper, which presents various mechanisms, actors and influences of this movement.


An important factor which led to the opposition movement is the strong emphasis laid on the risks of GMOs. The role and the influence of the various actors involved in the spreading and diffusion of information on GMOs is examined, taking into account the trust put in these actors: various associations opposed to GMOs, medias, companies, public research organizations, government. The extensive publicity given to the risks of GMOs coupled with a certain inadequacy of answers to these diverse criticisms has led to a very negative perception of GMOs: many risks or negative effects are suspected across a very wide field. Genetic engineering applied in agriculture lacks convincing supporters and allies in many European countries.


Thus the risk/ benefit assessment of GMOs is perceived as very unbalanced: their advantages in food production are generally considered to be weak or nonexistent, while their risks are considered to be substantial. In addition their potential benefits are perceived as going primarily to the firms that produce them and not to the society as a whole or to consumers. On the contrary, the safety of both consumers and society as a whole is perceived as being sacrificed. In addition, genetic engineering is considered to be risky for environment, for farmers in LDCs and for biodiversity, thus legitimizing opposition and action against it and even rendering this opposition essentially ethical. In this context, hostility towards GMOs seems to many to “stand to reason”: given the information spread on GMOs in 2000 or 2001, general opposition is inescapable.


Lastly, we point out that various fears and objections to the functioning of society (especially limited trust in institutions and firms) appear to be crystallized around GMOs. They often seem to be rejected as a symbol of trends perceived in a negative light (such as agricultural productivism, negative aspects of globalization and economic liberalism). However, these trends affect the majority of goods and sectors, therefore GMOs seem to be acting as a scapegoat.


A change of attitude towards GMOs seems difficult to achieve at present in France and the rest of Western Europe due to the strength of the current opposition. On the contrary, the opposition movement is spreading around the world. A change of attitude would require that GMOs no longer be considered the symbol of various unpopular trends but rather for themselves, in relation to their potential and the objectives to be set for them. However, the history of techniques shows that many innovations, after strong initial rejection, were subsequently widely diffused but with considerable improvement, especially as regards risk reduction, improved convenience of use and usefulness. Changes in the general socio-economic context as well could perhaps play an essential role by allowing GMOs to be perceived in a different light. In addition, the development of biotech and genomics applications could lead to new prospects for plant-breeding and farming and so, perhaps, make foreign gene transfer less necessary.


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