The way the public responds to a scientific advancement depends on two interrelated factors: The perceived benefits of whatever new technology is being introduced, and the way it’s positioned and perceived.

Consider two instructive examples of how that works, which will explain the current resistance to the acceptance of genetic engineering of food crops.

The first is microwave technology, specifically the introduction and marketing of the first generation of household microwave ovens back in the 1970s. Unless you were there, it might be hard to imagine, but back then there were real concerns expressed by many consumers about this strange new machine. People worried about the effect of “microwaves” (what the heck are they, anyway?) on food quality, and even greater concerns about their safety when used around children.

Seriously.

There weren’t many “microwavable” food products back then, either, not to mention that the first units were the size of a steamer trunk and weighed about 800 pounds.

Yet within little more than a decade, microwave ovens became as indispensable as smartphones are today. Why? Because they offered a tremendous benefit to users: Cooking or heating up food in minutes, seconds even, as opposed to a convection oven or stovetop that took that long just to heat up.

The utility of microwave technology was so great that it overcame the public’s concerns about the safety of the technology. Reality trumped perception, in other words.

Fear versus

Next, consider another technology that offered tremendous potential benefit, yet went absolutely nowhere: food irradiation.

Back in olden times—around 2002—the presence of deadly E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef was a huge problem. There had been nearly a decade’s worth of outbreaks, recalls and horrific incidents of illness and even death from the pathogen that seemed to find its way into the ground beef consumers used to think was as safe enough to eat as rare as you like.

Along came a progressive-minded supermarket retailer, the Wegman’s chain in New York and New Jersey, with a line of packaged ground beef that had been irradiated to destroy any pathogenic bacteria in the product.

Given the concerns about food safety, that should have been a winner, right?

Wrong. Despite a strong ad campaign, despite the company (and the media) saying all the right things about the safety of the technology and its negligible impact on quality — Wegmans even held taste tests of irradiated beef in their stores — it was no sale as far as shoppers were concerned, and the rollout was eventually scrapped.

The fact that irradiated beef cost and additional 70 or 80 cents a pound didn’t help. But the real reason the rollout failed was perception. Calling the technology “irradiation” was a non-starter. Even though the companies providing the services soon switched to an electron beam system, as opposed to using gamma radiation from actual radioactive materials, and began calling the technology “electron beam pasteurization,” it was too late.

Who wants radioactive food? No one, and consumer activists, whose real agenda was forcing those evil meatpackers to “clean up their act,” were only too happy to pile onto people’s fears about food glowing in the dark.

Even though worries about food contamination were at a peak, and even though electronic pasteurization offered genuine consumer benefits, irradiated beef failed miserably.

Perception trumped reality, in that case.

Which brings us to GMOs.

Failure to launch

Even though Americans are already consuming a huge percentage of their food products that are produced with the use of genetically engineered ingredients, the current controversy over mandatory GMO labeling proves that a majority of the public does not believe the technology is safe.

Genetic engineering is arguably the most precise, sophisticated application of scientific capability in the last century. Yet the average consumer — at best — believes that GE foods are suspect, if not outright poisonous.

Give the anti-GMO activists credit for clever campaigning with their “Frankenfoods” meme, and recognize that they’ve been blessed by the presence of a near-perfect corporate villain in Monsanto, the 21st century equivalent of Dow Chemical, makers of napalm, during the war in Vietnam.

But the underlying reason genetic engineering has struggled to gain acceptance is about positioning, not perception. What’s the benefit of GMOs to consumers? As far as most people are concerned, the answer is “Nothing.”

Unlike microwave technology, which quickly sold itself as a wonderful way to add convenience to the chore of cooking meals, GMOs have been engineered and marketed as a benefit to farmers and growers. That’s totally legitimate, but it doesn’t move the needle with shoppers in the store.

And much like irradiation, the introduction of genetic engineering has been plagued by terrible positioning. It’s challenging to get the public to believe that the use of x-ray technology is safe — not when you have to put on a 20-pound lead apron every time the dentist needs to check the root canal job you just endured — but it sure doesn’t help when your safe and helpful new technology has the word “radiation” in its name.

Can genetic engineering eventually be perceived as benign a technology as microwaving?

Stay tuned for the next 20 to 30 years, because that’s the minimum length of time it’s going to take. 

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator