Public still can’t swallow concept of GM food

A survey of 1,000 Americans found 62 percent believe GM technology is acceptable to protect human health, such as a GM mosquito that is less likely to carry the Zika virus.  |  Getty image

A new study has confirmed what pollsters already knew: the public remains skeptical about genetically modified foods.

But economists at Purdue University found something else in a survey of about 1,000 Americans. The public is more accepting of genetic modification when the technology is not used for food.

About 62 percent of respondents said GM is acceptable for use in human medicine and 68 percent said it’s OK to use the technology to protect human health, such as genetically modified mosquitoes.

In contrast, 49 percent of respondents, in the web-based survey, said genetic modification is acceptable for grain production.

Only 44 percent said it’s acceptable for livestock production.

The results suggest food is unique because it’s essential to life.

“Food is an everyday choice,” said Nicole Olynk Widmar, an agricultural economist at Purdue.

“In some ways, I can understand why people may be more cautious about what they’re ingesting on an ongoing basis.”

The Purdue results are similar to polls done in Canada, looking at public perceptions of GM foods:

  • A 2012 Farmers Feed Cities survey found that only 41 percent of Canadians think GM foods are safe for consumption.
  • An Insights West poll in 2014 found 50 percent of people in Alberta and 56 percent in British Columbia would support a ban on genetically modified foods in Canada.
  • A 2013 Consumers’ Association of Canada poll found that 88 percent of Canadians think GMO labelling should be mandatory.

Widmar and her Purdue colleagues analyzed responses from 964 Americans, representing demographics similar to the U.S. census. They separated the results based on age, region, income and education.

Looking at the data, there was a positive link between income and acceptance.

“Higher income groups were more likely to agree with genetic modification for grain, fruit and vegetables, and livestock production than lower income groups,” said a Purdue news release on the research.

It’s hard to know why Americans are more accepting of GM technology for health reasons, but media coverage of the Zika virus may have influenced public perceptions.

Zika, a mosquito-transmitted disease that can cause serious birth defects, was a huge issue in 2016.

As part of the story, scientists proposed using genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce the population of mosquitoes that might carry the virus.

That public discussion, around the potential benefits of GM technology, may have changed a few minds.

“The findings show that those aware of genetically modified mosquito technology were more likely to be accepting of genetic modification,” the Purdue news release said.

In the case of GM mosquitoes, the public learned about the concept before the technology received regulatory approval. It was different for GM foods, as most people found out after the fact, Widmar said.

“The perception of choice matters,” she said. “If you need it to stay healthy, you would probably use it. But if you feel like you were given GMOs and told about it later, that might upset you.”

Wally Tyner, also an agricultural economist at Purdue, said the gap in public perceptions between GM for medicine and health versus GM for farming, may offer some lessons for the ag sector.

For years, GM advocates have promoted the yield benefits of the technology, that it increases production efficiency and helps farmers feed the world.

The public may not care about yields or reducing costs for growers, Tyner said.

“If we can highlight health and environmental benefits, rather than just focusing on the bottom line, that might have a positive effect on the public attitude toward GMOs.”

The Purdue University study, “When is genetic modification socially acceptable”, has been published in the journal PLOS One.


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