GE Survey: More believe safe than not, most undecided

In 2010, Thompson Reuters released a survey* (PDF) of public attitudes toward genetically engineered food in the US. They had several significant findings, some of which should be fairly obvious, but some are real eye-openers. The questions were straight-forward and the raw data was posted online, but there was a distinct lack of visual representations of these results. I thought we could all use a good look at some simple graphs that demonstrate facts that many studies have shown consistently over time – that there are more people who believe that GE crops are safe than not, while most people are still undecided. It also showed that most people say they would eat GE plant-based foods that are currently on the market.

Question number one asked people to self-report their understanding of GE food. While self-reporting has its own problems (Like people who say they completely understand GE foods yet don’t really know anything about them), it does provide some information about how aware different groups are about GE. The survey reports that 65% of people are aware that some foods in the store are genetically engineered, and high-income and highly-educated people are up in the 80s. As for the understanding of the concepts, check out these results:

As you might expect, education level influences people’s self-reported understanding of GE food, and the column with the asterisk shows a significant result, which should be a no-brainer: People with a high school education or less report that they have a low understanding of genetic engineering. This understanding appears to be a result of higher education, and as we have discussed on this blog before, secondary education has room for improvement. You can look at the data for age and income in the paper, but I thought the education level was the most interesting.

Next, they asked the survey participants their opinion about the safety of GE food, and this reveals a result that is partly surprising, and partly expected.

Most people are undecided about the safety of genetically engineered foods. This should come as no surprise to anyone in this debate, although quite frequently people on the anti-GE side (and sometimes the pro-GE side) think that most people believe that these foods are unsafe. This is entirely not the case, as the peer-reviewed literature shows that most people are undecided in general about GE, and that includes safety. But there are a few surprises in these results.

When I describe the shape of public opinion on GE, I often say that the people who have decided in favor or against GE as being roughly equal, but both minority groups next to the majority of undecided people. This Reuters survey reveals that in fact more people in the US believe that GE foods are safe than those who do not. And as you move from younger to older, less to more income, and lower to higher education that you see the greatest differences. Amongst people over 65, who make $100k per year or more, or have advanced degrees, there are twice as many people who believe GE foods are safe than those who believe that they are unsafe.

This has several important implications, including the fact that companies that advertise their products as being “non-GMO” tend to have people of higher income and education as their niche market – and therefore marketing their products on the basis of GE foods being unsafe may not resonate with these customers. These results also mean that there is a positive correlation between education and belief about the safety of GE foods.

The survey asked a question about labeling of GE foods, and found an unsurprising result:

Consistently, surveys have shown that about 90% of people, when asked, believe that GE foods should be labeled in the store. Anti-GE organizations tend to state that this is because most people want to avoid GE foods. Most of these surveys don’t delve into why people want them labeled, but some published papers do. Consumers want more information about genetically engineered food, which makes perfect sense considering how many people are still undecided about its safety, benefits, impact, etc. For those who dislike the idea of GE foods, naturally they would want to avoid them. Amongst those in favor of GE, there is probably more diversity of opinion about labels, ranging from no need whatsoever, to wanting to know if something is GE because you would want to buy it. I would rather know that some foods were GE than not, myself. But the important factor in deciding how much people want a mandatory food label is the strength of the desire, not an answer to a simple binary yes/no question. This can be (and has been) asked in several ways, such as how much people would be willing to pay for GE labels, or for people to rate different kinds of labels in order of importance. Examining attitudes on labeling outside of these contexts does not give guidance for public policy.

Now here comes the real news – would people eat GE foods?

This is the result that most people who talk about the acceptance of genetic engineering should pay attention to. Despite lack of knowledge about GE crops, uncertainty regarding its safety, and a desire for labels – most people surveyed would eat genetically engineered plant-based foods, to the tune of 60%. This 60% represents people who would eat GE foods if they knew they were genetically engineered, so even if you were to institute mandatory labeling for GE crops, this is 60% of those people who would happen to read that on the label – people who do not would not change their decision. Furthermore, we can also see that acceptance of genetic engineering in animals is lower – at about 40% for both fish and meat. This is similar to where opinion on plants was years ago, and we have not yet had genetically engineered animals on our dinner plates. So this result could either reflect an inherent difference in attitude between genetic engineering of plants and animals, or, a difference in attitude that reflects the time since the introduction of GE plants.

There are, as with all studies, certain caveats. This survey was conducted on 3,025 people, with an error rate of 1.8% That’s pretty good, however it does not reveal the limitations of the type of data collected. This is data based on self-reported assessments of current and/or future hypothetical behavior – something that is known to give an inaccurate picture of actual behavior. Survey respondents can sometimes give what answer they believe they should give, rather than how they would actually behave. And people can sometimes be really bad at self-assessment. For instance, when asked about generosity toward charitable organizations, respondents rate themselves as being much more generous than they actually are. The best kind of research you can do on human behavior is to actually study human behavior, or set up hypothetical situations that more closely reflect reality. This is the stuff of peer-reviewed research, and not the kind of thing you can do with phone surveys.

The Non-GMO Project reports on their website that a 2008 CBS/New York Times poll, “53% of consumers said they would not buy food that has been genetically modified.” Yet, we find that this survey find that fully 60% self-report that they would eat GE plants, and 40% for animals. How can we put these two results together? First, the statement on the Non GMO Project website that these 53% “would not” buy GE foods is false – the study did not give results that are clearly delineated like that. Although I have been unable to find any data from the original 2008 poll, this book chapter(PDF, pg 7-40) describes some of the results in more detail. The 53% figure represents the people who personally rate buying a GE food “not very likely” and “not likely at all.” These are expressions of likelihood, not determinations of the binary behavior of whether or not they would in practice. The 53% figure also lumps together people who feel moderately disinclined and strongly disinclined to buy them – and if their results follow other existing research, then the people who feel strongly disinclined are in a minority. It was also a question about buying attitude, not eating behavior, and the sample size was one third that of the new Reuters survey. Finally, 50% is right in the middle of 60% for plants, and 40% for animals, so it could reflect the average attitude of people toward GE.

However, There is another difference: time. The CBS/NY Times poll was conducted in 2008, and the Reuters survey was conducted in 2010. There has been much discussion about GE in the past few years, perhaps attitudes have changed somewhat – a possibility that we cannot rule out. The survey also found that 70% of people were aware of GE foods in the marketplace, whereas the CBS poll found only 44% were aware of them in 2008. Clearly, more people are aware of them, and perhaps have become educated about them. I’d like to know where they learned about them! (By coincidence, Biofortified was founded in 2008.)

I would like to make one last point about labeling of GE foods. Several groups are pushing for mandatory labeling, often suggesting that there will be widespread rejection of these GE foods once labeled. This survey shows that when asked, and when aware that food have been genetically engineered, still 60% self-report that they will eat GE foods that are on the market. We already know that people don’t read the labels, as found by Charles Noussair in 2002. And this quote from Noussair bolsters my comment about the difference between opinion surveys and actual behaviors:

“Opinion surveys capture the respondent in the role of a voter, not in the role of a consumer,” he says. “The two behaviors can be quite different, as many studies have shown.”

Japan is arguably one of the most GE-cautious nations in the world, yet, 94% of its soy is imported, 71% of which is from the U.S., and 93% of that is genetically engineered. Therefore, despite the presence of mandatory labels, at least 62% of the soy in Japan is genetically engineered, and people buy and eat it there. Labels will not eliminate GE foods from stores, because people will buy and eat them nevertheless. Adding an extra cost to everyone’s food based on public opinion and not actual behavior or demonstrated need should give you pause. If it is your own desire you are expressing by pushing for these labels, remember that this survey shows that public opinion on the safety and acceptance of genetically engineered foods is not in your favor. If anything, it shows the need for more information, and what happens when more people get it.

*As noted in a comment below, the survey is from 2010, but it appears to have resurfaced recently, so I thought it was just released, but that the data was from 2010. The first sentence has been edited to reflect this fact.

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Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.