Consumers search for trustworthy GMO information

Consumer perceptions and confusion abound when it comes to the topic of genetically modified organisms.

There was no confusion for Jennifer Carlson when she launched her line of organic baby food 11 years ago.

“Organic was always predominately the number one choice when we started this company,” the Calgary mother said.

“As a mother, I wanted to give my baby the very best, and that came with the best of ingredients.”

Carlson did not want anything containing pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones or GMOs when she started making baby food in her kitchen for her six-month-old daughter.

Certified organic products cannot be genetically modified, but that information is not added to the food label.

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To be on the safe side, she does not use corn starch or canola in any of her products, which she sells across North America under the brand name Baby Gourmet.

The company website provides full information on ingredients, and Carlson is active on social media and blogs for the Huffington Post about good eating.

“We are very transparent about where our food comes from and where our ingredients come from,” she said.

“People like to read the ingredients. They like to see what is in it.”

People are hungry for information, and Carlson has joined the newly formed Clean Label Project as an adviser.

During her time in the food business, she has learned that mothers make up an influential consumer group who get their information from each other and social media. They want to know more, but how they sift through the billions of bytes of data is up to them.

“You have to find a reliable source that you trust and follow their information,” said Carlson.

Finding that credible, trustworthy source of information can be a challenge, said Crystal MacKay, executive director of Farm and Food Care Canada.

The organization oversees the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, which works to build public trust in the food supply.

Research is showing many people are not scientifically literate, and when they consult Google, negative information about genetic modification is often the first thing they see, she said.

Surveys from across North America report that people want their food labelled for the presence of GMOs, but when pressed, the average person is not sure what the term means.

Some members of focus groups have said breeding the best cow to the best bull to get a better animal is genetic modification, even though farmers have done selective breeding since livestock was domesticated.

“People aren’t willing to work that hard to understand complex things like GMOs,” MacKay said.

“It is easier to be against something than try and sort through all that noise to figure out what the answer is.”

Finding credible information can be a problem, and researchers study sources of information regularly.

Recent research on public trust found people believe that university and government researchers are the most credible sources of information. Dieticians and veterinarians are also trusted sources, while corporations are not.

“The closer you are to the profit, the less credible you will be viewed,” she said.

However farmers have a high level of credibility, even though they make money growing GM crops.

Comprehension is part of the problem. Scientists and reports may have credibility, but reading peer reviewed research papers may not tell the average consumer what she wants to know.

Farm and Food Care has introduced the Best Food Facts Online to its website. It is a U.S. based resource with 120,000 visitors per month. Ten Canadian researchers have been added to the group of experts to provide an online forum to answer questions.

“The goal is to provide a foodie friendly forum for researchers to have the opportunity to express their views, not in a scientific journal way,” MacKay said.

“The most important thing for Canadians is healthy and affordable food, and after that they want to know they have access to the information,” she said.

Ellen Goddard, professor and co-operative chair of agricultural marketing and business at the University of Alberta, studies consumers, their attitudes and perceptions. Biotechnology and GMO opinions have been on her radar for a long time.

“I wouldn’t say the entire population was positive about the idea. It is important to get that,” she said.

One of her research projects asked subjects if they would eat something like margarine if they knew it contained a GMO. More than half said they would not buy it, even though most canola has been modified.

“It begs the question what would happen if we labelled it,” she said.

“This is the reason why some people are so opposed to labelling it because of that relatively high percentage that is in the definitely not/probably not category.”

Her surveys have found nearly half the population is opposed or somewhat opposed to biotechnology in general, but 55 percent support it. Medicinal use of biotechnology was received less negatively.

“It is not the technology, but the technology in food, that somehow makes them uncertain.”

Those who are strongly opposed do not change their minds, al-though the numbers in the neutral category are growing a bit.

“In the last 15 years, we are not seeing a switch in people being negative about technology to people being positive about this. It seems to be staying relatively flat,” she said.

There are geographical differences of opinion.

“Having some connection to agriculture seems to moderate your views,” she said. “You don’t need to be a farmer. If you lived in Airdrie, you are probably going to know more about agriculture than somebody who lives in downtown Calgary, just because of the people you hang around with.”

Age is another influencer.

“Older people are a bit more philosophical about technology, so if they can see a health benefit, then they are happy enough with it,” she said.

If they see no benefit, they are in the neutral category.

Millennials may have the strongest preferences for natural products, so researchers are trying to pinpoint what people define as natural.

“Natural could mean anything.”

People younger than 35 are realizing they have to learn how to cook, and they want things with fewer ingredients. They also want to understand what the ingredients are and do not want products that sound like they were created in a lab.

Goddard is also tracking where people get information.

Her research team asked people at the end of 2015 which types of social media they use to get information about food, science or technology. Those results are still being analyzed.

“The demand for information is something that is pervasive throughout my research, whether I am dealing with genetic technologies or genomic selection or anything,” she said.

“If you ask the public, they will always say more information is better than less,” she said.

Some researchers have asked people if they know what DNA, genomics or genetically modified organisms are, and have found there to be limited knowledge.

They also asked people if they agree or disagree that the world is better off with technology.

Those who agree are also fine with GM products.

As well, people who are generally more positive about technology rate themselves as high knowledge when asked to self-assess their personal knowledge about science and technology.

“Are those people more knowledgeable? Possibly,” Goddard said.

“Is there a link to education? Possibly. Can we educate ourselves out of people’s concerns about this? No.”

Children may be influenced to accept these technologies and understand what they are, but adults are not likely to change their minds.

“Your beliefs are made up of so many different values that the education piece doesn’t work particularly, especially if it comes from an interest group,” she said.

Goddard said she has found that people want more information, and some have said they are willing to pay more for products with more detailed labels.

“We seem to have an insatiable demand for information from a variety of sources,” she said.

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