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Three Truths about Public’s Perception of Genetic Modification

25 June 2014

ANALYSIS - The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the American food system is controversial. Public discourse of GMO has been characterized by polarization and inflated rhetoric, write Oistein Thorsen and Garret Higgins, both with trie.

Proponents of GMO hail it like a holy grail for feeding a growing population, while opponents’ talk of “frankencrops” invoke somewhat Luddite fear of new technology and science. In an attempt to clarify what exactly the American consumer is taking from this contentious debate, the authors have reviewed a series of recent public perception research from reputable sources like the International Food Information Center (IFIC), Gallup and the New York Times. What emerges are the following three truths:

  1. People are concerned and largely skeptical of GMOs and thus in favor of labeling.
  2. Distrust of the food industry and general ignorance about what constitutes genetic modification - its prevalence and common applications - are major drivers of public concern.
  3. The public needs more accurate information from trustable sources if misperceptions are to be corrected.

The Public’s Awareness of GM

American consumers are largely wary of GMO. Many state legislatures are deliberating bills that would mandate labeling. Multiple polling studies show popular opinion is in favor of labeling based on beliefs about GE-caused health risks.

The FDA currently does not require GM and/or food with GM ingredients to be labeled. Currently, most row crops bred in the US are modified. According to the USDA, about 94% of soy, 95% of sugar beets, and 90% of cotton plants are GM varieties (USDA, 2013).

Polls conducted by researchers at Rutgers University found that 43% of survey participants were aware that GM food is available in supermarkets, and only 26% knew they had eaten food containing genetically modified products (Rutgers, 2013).

The Rutgers poll also found that consumers are uninformed as to which types of food are genetically modified and sold in grocery stores. More than half mistakenly believed that GM tomatoes (56%), wheat (55%), and chicken (50%) are on the market (ibid.).

“Nearly half” of respondents in a New York Times poll were aware that food containing GMO is commonly sold. Four out of ten wrongly thought that “most or a lot of their fruits and vegetables were genetically modified.” (NYT, 2013).

A Gallup poll conducted in July, 2013, asked if respondents follow news about biotechnology and GE. Twelve percent affirmed that they follow updates “very closely.” Thirty percent, however, follow news related to GMO “not at all.” (Gallup, 2013).

In May of 2014, the IFIC published a survey finding mixed results. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they had read/heard something positive about GMO, while 25% said what they had read or heard was negative. Thirty-eight percent responded that the information they’ve heard is neutral (IFIC, 2014).

Demand for Labeling

Nutrition LabelThe public is unified in support of labeling GM food. Surveys from various media all overwhelmingly found consumers to favor transparency. However labeling is not a simple matter; as Cathleen Enright of the Biotechnology Industry Organization says, labeling needs to be “without prejudice.” GM labeling in the European Union, the Scientific American wrote, can unduly constrain the food market.

Many people argue for GMO labels in the name of increased consumer choice. On the contrary, such labels have limited people's options. In 1997, a time of growing opposition to GMOs in Europe, the E.U. began to require them. By 1999, to avoid labels that might drive customers away, most major European retailers had removed genetically modified ingredients from products bearing their brand. Major food producers such as Nestlé followed suit. Today it is virtually impossible to find GMOs in European supermarkets (Scientific American, 2013.).

A survey by the New York Times found that 93% of people think food containing GM ingredients should be labeled (NYT, 2013). A poll conducted by ABC News also resulted in 93% of respondents in support of required labeling (ABC News, 2013). In the Washington Post’s public poll, 94% answered that GM food should be labeled (Washington Post, 2013). Although not as overwhelming as the aforementioned polls, 73% of respondents to the Rutgers University Poll believed GM labeling should be required (Hallman et al., 2013).

Because of this mass concern, many state legislatures are taking action. In 2013, Connecticut and Maine passed GE labeling legislation. In May 2013, a bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii was introduced in a county council (NYT, 2014). Since the start of 2014, 34 new GE labeling bills have been introduced in 19 states (CFS, 2014).

In September 2013, Sen. Elizabeth Warren called on the FDA to finalize a draft guidance for GE labeling. However that initiative has drawn the ire of anti-GMO activists, as compliance on the part of the food industry is voluntary (Politico, 2013).

Consumers adamantly demand labeling largely because of perceived health risks. In the poll conducted by the New York Times, 75% of respondents “expressed concerns” about GMO (NYT, 2013). Thirty-seven percent “feared” possible carcinogens and allergens, and 26% believed GM food is “not safe to eat, or toxic” (ibid.). Forty-eight percent of Gallup’s respondents believe GE food pose a serious health risk. (Thirty-six percent said it isn’t a health risk, and 16% answered “no opinion.”)

This is the first of a two-part series of GMOs. Watch for the part two which covers consumer trust. 

Garret Higgins is a graduate from Pace University, where he studied business and political science. He is currently an intern with trieSM in New York City.



Oistein Thorsen

Principal Consultant, trie

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