Do you eat genetically modified vegetables? What about organically grown vegetables? Americans think about their food decisions now more than ever before. These have even made it to the federal government; just this year, President Barack Obama signed a law requiring that food labels display whether or not a product uses genetically modified ingredients. Today, the Pew Research Center released a report surveying 1480 adults representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia from May 10 to June 6 of this year on their food opinions.
The results were generally unsurprising. 55 percent of those surveyed think organic produce is better for your health, while another 41 percent thought it was neither better nor worse; almost everyone agrees that organic products aren’t unhealthy. Genetically modified foods told a different story. Most of the study participants felt that GM foods were either better or neither better nor worse for human health than non-GM foods. But a large share, 39 percent, still thought GM foods were less healthy than their unmodified counterparts.
Those worried a lot about GM foods, unsurprisingly, were concerned with other food habits perceived as healthy. 76 percent of that cohort ate either some or mostly organic food, and 82 percent purchased foods based on what the nutrition and ingredient labels said several time in the past month. 21% of the GM concerned folks kept vegan, eschewing all meat and dairy products, while only 6% of those who weren’t concerned about GM foods kept vegan. Generally, views didn’t change whether the participant was a Democrat or a Republican.
Many of the study participants felt that not even scientists knew whether GM foods were helpful or harmful. Of those who cared about GM foods “a great deal,” only 35 percent trusted scientists “a lot,” while 41 percent trusted scientists “some,” and 24 percent didn’t trust scientists at all. Most (60 percent) still felt that scientists should have a major role in creating government food policy.
“I thought the information gleaned was not particularly new nor unexpected,” writes Marion Nestle, author and Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, in an email. She says the American public hasn’t been well educated about science, and that the biotechnology industry has led to distrust in scientists and science regarding GM food. “[The industry’s] secrecy, lack of transparency in labeling, aggressiveness, and overblown claims for benefits have caused much harm to the scientific community,” she says
Others pointed out that people are more than just data points. “The opinions of consumers are more nuanced than is typically acknowledged,” writes Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and and Environment program at Tufts University, in an email. He was involved in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine joint report on Genetically Engineered Crops released this year.
That report found that genetically modified crops were safe. However with so many concerned study participants, it might take more than evidence to win many American consumers’ trust.