Awareness of GM foods increasing, while overall support slipping

October 15, 2003

Most Americans are unaware that they are already eating genetically modified (GM) foods, although awareness of GM foods is growing. This, according to a nationwide telephone survey of 1,200 randomly selected Americans, released on October 15 by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers' Cook College. The study also found that while Americans seem to know more about genetic modification than most Europeans, American's overall knowledge about both GM foods and food production is relatively low.

Estimates suggest that as much as 80% of processed food in the United States may contain a component from a genetically modified crop, such as: corn starch, high-fructose corn syrup, canola oil, soybean oil, soy flour, lecithin, or cotton-seed oil. Genetic modification involves the transfer of genes from one plant or animal to another with the purpose of expressing a desired trait, such as protecting the plant from insects or increasing productivity.

Despite the abundance of products with genetically modified ingredients in the American marketplace today, the Food Policy Institute (FPI) study found that only about half of the respondents (52%) were aware that genetically modified food products are currently for sale in supermarkets. Although this represents an increase in awareness since 2001, when a similar FPI study found that only 41% of respondents knew that GM foods were available in supermarkets, awareness remains low. Perhaps more strikingly, only 26% of Americans believe they have ever eaten GM foods, though this represents a 6% increase since 2001.

"Most Americans have no idea that foods with genetically modified ingredients are already for sale in the United States," says Dr. William Hallman, Associate Director of the Food Biotechnology Program at the Food Policy Institute and lead author on the study. "But bottom line, if you eat processed foods, you're probably eating GM ingredients."

One reason Americans may be unaware of the presence of GM foods in their pantries is that the currently available GM foods are not labeled as such. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has reviewed the safety of all GM foods on the market, requires labeling whenever there has been a significant change in nutrients, allergens, toxins, or composition. To date, the FDA has not found any significant differences between GM and conventional foods and so does not require them to be labeled.

Although labeling is a contentious issue among those who oppose the technology, Americans' desire for labeling of GM food products remains uncertain. Early in the interviews, before the issue of genetic modification was raised, respondents were asked to say in their own words what information they would like to see on food labels. Surprisingly, virtually no one said that they would like to see labels contain information about whether the food has GM ingredients (<1%). Yet, later, when asked directly if they would like to see GM food labels, the overwhelming majority of Americans (94%) said that they would.

The study found that self-reported and objectively measured knowledge and awareness of biotechnology and GM foods remain low in the U.S. The lack of familiarity most Americans have with biotechnology is reflected in their answers to an eleven-item true/false quiz given as part of the survey. Approximately half of the respondents (52%) received a failing grade of less than 70% correct. Only 4% of the sample answered all quiz questions correctly. Only 60% were able to correctly reject the statement that "tomatoes genetically modified with genes from catfish would probably taste 'fishy'." Similarly, 57% were able to correctly identify the statement "ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do," as false. However, two-thirds of Americans were able to correctly reject the idea that eating genetically modified fruit would alter their own genes.

While most Americans do poorly on this test, and their overall performance hasn't changed much since 2001, they do perform better on these questions than their European counterparts. Compared to the results reported in a recent Eurobarometer survey of knowledge about biotechnology in Europe, Americans outperform Europeans on every question.

American's basic knowledge about farming and food production was also found to be low. Only about half (55%) of Americans know that most of the corn grown in the United States is used to feed animals such as cows, less than half (46%) recognize that sugar is not the sweetener used in most processed foods, and 16% incorrectly believe that peanuts grow on trees.

"Most people in this country know very little about food production or genetically modified foods," says Dr. Hallman. "However, lack of knowledge about GM food does not stop Americans from expressing an opinion about it." While the majority of Americans claim to know "very little" (55%) or "nothing at all" (22%) about biotechnology, only about 10% of Americans report being unsure of their opinion of GM foods.

When asked directly, about half (49%) of Americans report that they approve of plant-based GM foods, (down 9% from 2001) and about one quarter (27%) approve of animal-based GM foods (unchanged from 2001).

The new study, however, also found that American's opinions about GM foods are not firmly held. Simply mentioning potential benefits of GM foods significantly increased approval ratings for those products. For example, of those who disapproved of plant-based GM food products, 30% said they would purchase a GM product if it contained less fat and 24% if it tasted better than ordinary food.

Consumers also favor GM foods that confer environmental benefits; a third (31%) of those who initially disapproved of plant-based GM food products said they would be willing to buy a GM product grown in a more environmentally friendly way than ordinary food. Almost half (44%) of those who initially disapproved of plant-based GM food products said they would be willing to purchase them if they contained less pesticide residue than ordinary food. The latter finding is especially interesting considering that reduction in pesticide use is one of the main benefits conferred by some of the existing GM corn and cotton crops that are already widely planted.

Price reductions do not appear to influence consumers as much as other benefits. Only 12% of those who initially disapproved of plant-based GM technology said they would buy GM foods if they were cheaper than ordinary foods.

"Right now the major benefits of GM crops are increased yields and reduced pesticide use," says Dr. Hallman. "While that's good news for the farmers and the environment, most consumers haven't taken much notice. However, over the next few years, GM products will be introduced with consumers in mind and will include benefits such as increased nutrition, better taste, and lower price. When that happens, our data indicate that Americans may be more receptive to GM foods, and consumers may go out of their way to learn more about those products. But at the moment, most Americans aren't even aware that GM food products are already on their plates."
-end-
The study was funded by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems Program (IFAFS). Copies of the report Public Perceptions of Genetically Modified Foods: A National Study of American Knowledge and Opinion can be downloaded at no cost at the Food Policy Institute Website: http://www.foodpolicyinstitute.org

Rutgers University

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