Despite Sound Science, Americans Still Distrust GMOs

Just mention GMOs, and you can polarize a crowd in minutes. Many of the people in that crowd won’t even know why they’re against GMOs, as illustrated on late-night TV several years ago. Jimmy Kimmel was doing his “man on the street” segment, where he goes out among the common folk (if there is such a thing in California), and asks them questions on the spur of a moment. When he asked people at a farmers’ market what “GMO,” stood for, several of them responded, “I don’t know – I just know they’re bad.”

It’s mind boggling that people can form an opinion so easily from misinformation or lack of information. But then, when you think of all the groups that constantly proclaim the evils and dangers of GMOs to further their own cause, it becomes a bit more understandable.

Marketers of products that proclaim to be “organic,” “sustainable,” or some other popular term, take pleasure in demonizing modern production agriculture, including GMOs. Environmental groups consider GMOs a bane on the world, even though their safety is proven and their benefits are well documented.

Survey Says
Still, mistrust exists. Labels proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to disclose “bioengineered” (BE) foods dramatically increased consumer concerns, especially regarding human health, according to an article on Food Insight.

Research was conducted by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation into areas where AMS sought comments on its proposed BE labeling standards, as well as consumers’ views generally of GMOs.

The findings were derived from an online survey of 1,002 Americans ages 18–80 with sole or shared responsibility for their household’s grocery shopping, IFIC said. Results were represented and distributed across region, gender, age, education, race/ethnicity and household income.

According to IFIC, more than one-third (36%) of respondents said they know very little or nothing at all about bioengineered or genetically modified foods, identical to the number who say they know at least a fair amount. Despite the low level of knowledge, a greater number (47%) said they avoid GMO foods at least somewhat, which supports the earlier premise that misinformation has left its mark on consumers.

“The vast majority (85%) of those who avoid GMOs do so out of human health concerns, with the environment (43%), animal health (36%) and agriculture/farming (34%) concerns trailing far behind,” are article said.

The survey also gathered information on statements about GMOs, or GMO-free claims, to see how they stacked up against other front-of-pack labels. According to the research, several claims rank higher than GMO-free claims.

“When given a list to choose from, the top labeling claims consumers seek out when buying food are:

  • All Natural, 100% Natural or Natural (71%)
  • Raised without Antibiotics (71%)
  • Sustainable (62%)
  • Locally Sourced (61%)
  • USDA Certified Organic (60%)

"GMO-free claims including 'Not Made with Genetically Modified Ingredients' and 'Non-GMO Project Verified' were important to more than 55% of consumers each, significantly below any type of natural claim, as well as several others,” the Food Insight article said.

“Despite broad scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to consume, a majority of Americans seem to be convinced otherwise. It’s a significant disconnect and it underscores the need for more creative public education on the science behind our food,” said Joseph Clayton, CEO of the IFIC Foundation.

Addressing the Disconnect
There are voices of reason in the wilderness, and with all the talk about fake news, perhaps consumers will become more discerning in what they believe and why.

Last year, we wrote about the Food Evolution movie, which did an excellent job of explaining not only what GMOs are, but also how they have changed the world for the better.

From genetically engineered rennet, to insulin, to golden rice, the film’s moderator, esteemed science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, tells how these products were developed and how they’re changing people’s lives.

“It’s much easier to sell fear than science,” says researcher Alison Van Eenennaam with the University of California-Davis, in the film, “But science is so much better than trying to scare the bejesus out of people.”

Voices of Sanity
Mark Lynas was an environmental activist, but, he says, “I discovered science and as a result, I hope I’ve become a better environmentalist…If you throw the science out, there’s just a blob of competing views.”

These are the kind of folks who can serve as spokespeople for people searching for answers. The message will be more believable if it comes from those who don’t represent a segment of agriculture. Otherwise, consumers will be wary.

Daniel M. Gold, with The New York Times was a convert after seeing Food Evolution.

He wrote: "With a soft tone, respectful to opponents but insistent on the data, “Food Evolution” posits an inconvenient truth for organic boosters to swallow: In a world desperate for safe, sustainable food, G.M.O.s may well be a force for good."

Let’s hope enough people are willing to keep an open mind about GMOs, and that they actually want the facts. Consumers need to understand the importance of using technology to keep a growing population alive and healthy.