London (17.04.17) – Bearing in mind that the United States was the first country to cultivate GM-crops commercially as well as being the first to incorporate them into food, the reactions of the general public in that country have been interesting.

For the first ten years or so there was little reaction: not none, but little. Then, perhaps as the action warmed up in Europe, more organised objection began also to appear in the US (for an interesting comment on the importance of Europe [specifically the European Union] for American “environmentalists”, see the article by Matt Ridley in The Times today [1]).

Light has been thrown on contemporary US public attitudes and opinions by a survey published at the end of last year by the Pew Research Center (2). Their publication is 100 pages long and we can here do no more than touch upon some of the most interesting findings from our own perspectives.

In something of a nutshell:

(a) of those US adults who care about various aspects of GM-foods, roughly four times as many as those who do not pay a close interest in the subject, think they are worse than non-GM-foods, result in environmental problems and tend to buy organic foods which they think is healthier.

(b) however, 46% of US adults who care about the issue of GM-foods care not very much or not at all. Some 30% think the media exaggerate the risks of GM-foods, 26% say they get it about right while 40% do not think the risks are taken seriously enough.

(c) of those who do care, 89% have “purchased foods based on the nutrition and
ingredient labels and 82% have done so several times in the past month; 89% have bought
organic foods and 74% have bought foods labelled GMO-free. Fewer of those with less concern on the issue of GM foods have done the same (57% of those with not too much or no concern about the issue of GM foods have decided what to buy based on nutrition and ingredient labels, 57% have bought organic foods in the past month and just 26% have bought foods labelled GMO-free).

(d) A lot of Americans don't care what scientists think about GMOs. According to National Public Radio, “Americans believe that there's no scientific consensus on GMOs. Just over 50 per cent of respondents believe that "about half or fewer" of scientists agree that GM foods are safe to eat. Only 14 per cent’s beliefs match the reality — that "almost all" scientists agree that GM foods are safe to eat” (3). We find that rather depressing because it suggests that people listen to those who don’t know rather than those who do a phenomenon, of course, my no means confined to genetic modification.

(e) men, it seems, are more likely than women to say GM foods will make food more affordable and abundant.

Do note that the inquiry was conducted via a survey of a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults living in households. “Most findings in this report were conducted among 1,480 respondents (1,330 by web and 150 by mail) who were randomly assigned to complete one of three forms or sets of questions on the survey. The margin of sampling error for the sample of 1,480 respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.”

Thus, the reliability of the respondents’ answers was not tested against their actions. That is indeed a pity (if a considerable burden) because it has been quite clear in earlier studies that an individual's responses in a survey questionnaire may be very different from those very individuals’ behaviour when actually shopping for food (4, particularly chapter 6).

So the Pew report is interesting – and well worth a read if such matters interest you – but it is hardly a definitive assessment of the responses of members of the US public to genetic modification in agriculture.

Sources:

1. Matt Ridley (17.04.17). Europe's age of unreason harms its wildlife. The Times (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/europe-s-age-of-unreason-harms-its-wildlife-jxn5dzhgv)

2. Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy (01.12.16). The New Food Fights: U.S. public divides over food science. Differing views on benefits and risks of organic foods, GMOs as Americans report higher priority for healthy eating. Pew Research Center (http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/12/01/the-new-food-fights/). The full report may be downloaded from this site.

3. Dan Charles (02.12.16). Americans don't trust scientists' take on food issues. NPR (http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/12/02/504034298/americans-dont-trust-scientists-take-on-food-politicians-even-less)

(4) Do European consumers buy GM foods? European Commission: Framework 6
Project no. 518435 (14.10.08) (http://www.kcl.ac.uk/medicine/research/divisions/dns/projects/consumerchoice/index.aspx)

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  American public opinion on GM-foods