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Genetically Modified Organisms: A Deep Divide in Opinion Between Scientists and the Public

2015-06-13

A recent survey of scientists showed that 88% of them agreed with the statement, “genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) are generally safe.”  By contrast, the poll shows that the majority of American laymen disagree and appear to feel that GMO’s are unsafe and/or unhealthy.  This poll was conducted by  the Pew Research Center in the fall of 2014 on a number of subjects, and used membership in the American Association for Advancement of Science as a marker for “scientist.”  More ominously, and partially explaining the public attitude, 67% (two-thirds) of the public agreed that “scientists do not have a clear understanding about the health effects of GMO crops.”

An ABC news poll (conducted by random telephone calls) from 2013 found the following:

“Sixty-two percent of women think genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat, a view that’s shared by far fewer men, 40 percent. Indeed a plurality of men think these foods are safe, while women disagree by better than 2-1.

Similarly, while 49 percent of men say they’d be less likely to buy food labeled as genetically modified, that jumps to 65 percent of women. (Similar numbers of women and men say they’re more likely to buy organic foods.)”

In addition, some 93 percent of respondents think that GMO’s should be labeled, and many would use the labeling to avoid GMO’s, a possibility that has food companies really scared– if GMO labeling causes people to avoid certain foods (those not labeled “GMO free”) then those foods would die a slow death on the shelf.

Politics affects one’s opinion about GMO safety:

“There’s also a political difference. Republicans divide evenly on whether genetically modified foods are safe or unsafe. Independents rate them unsafe by a 20-point margin; Democrats, by a 26-point margin.”

The ABC news report ends with a “scientific” opinion, or at least endorsement:

“The FDA has said labeling isn’t necessary because there’s no evidence genetic engineering changes a food’s quality, safety, ‘or any other attribute.’ In a report late last year, the American Medical Association also said there was ‘no scientific justification for special labeling of genetically modified foods, as a class.'”

In other words, about half of people in the poll would avoid GMO’s if they knew they were in the food; women and Democrats are more likely to shun GMO’s.  There appears to be a trend among liberal, radical, and avante-garde thinkers that disagrees with scientific peoples’ thoughts on the subject.

Numerous polls conducted over the last ten years agree that well over ninety percent of respondents favor mandatory labeling of GMO foods; for example, the “Center for Food Safety” has compiled lists, including seven polls conducted since 2001, all of which show the same response.

Rutgers conducted an online survey in 2013 that found:

“American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GM foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.”

It seems that it is more likely that the public, rather than science, “does not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GMO crops.”

This is a serious disconnect, because, as the detailed Rutgers report tells us, we are already consuming and using many GMO  products:

“According to USDA Crop Acreage reports, in 2013, 94% of the soy, 90% of the cotton, and 90% of the corn produced in the United States were GM varieties featuring the two principal traits of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance, or combinations of the two. Moreover, 95% of the sugar beets grown by farmers in the US (more than a million acres) were herbicide‐resistant GM varieties. In addition, American farmers grew millions of acres of GM herbicide‐resistant canola and alfalfa, and virus‐resistant squash and papaya. Corn, soy, canola, sugar beets, and cotton seed oil are the source of some of the most common ingredients used by American food processors. GM varieties are also often mixed with conventional varieties during shipping, processing and storage. As a result, experts say that the majority of processed foods in the United States likely contain an ingredient from a GM crop, such as corn starch, high‐fructose corn syrup, canola oil, soybean oil, soy flour, lecithin, or cotton‐seed oil.”

What really jars, though, is that most people have no idea what they are consuming:

“Despite the abundance of products with GM ingredients in the U.S., the survey results suggest most consumers are unaware of them. The study found that fewer than half of Americans (43%) are aware that such products are currently for sale in supermarkets, and only about one quarter (26%) believe that they have ever eaten any food containing GM ingredients. In fact, GM soy products were introduced to the market more than 15 years ago, and because most processed foods are likely to contain an ingredient derived from a GM crop, most Americans have consumed such products.”

Many people think there are GMO’s in crops that don’t have them:

“The survey found that even those who say they are aware of the presence of GM foods in American stores are unclear about which foods are available. While three‐quarters correctly recognized that GM corn products are on store shelves, and 59% realized that GM soybeans are available, more than half mistakenly believed that GM tomatoes, wheat, and chicken products are in supermarkets, more than 40% believe that GM apples and rice are on the market, and more than a third believe that GM salmon and GM oranges are currently on offer. These latter products are not on supermarket shelves in the U.S.”

Public impressions about tomatoes may be due to the fact that a GMO tomato, the “Flavr Savr”, was once introduced but was discontinued quickly; for the rest of the products, the reasons for these answers are unclear.

Actual awareness of GMO foods is so low that only 7% of respondents volunteered that GMO products should be labeled without being prompted that GMO’s are a subject of interest; only a quarter of respondents realize that current regulations do not require GMO foods to be labeled.   When directly asked “Should GMO foods be labeled?”, then the Rutgers survey showed 73% agreed (lower than the other surveys, and somewhat higher than the percentage that thought food with hormones, antibiotics,  or pesticides should be labeled.)  About 45 % agreed that eating GMO foods was safe; the majority thought that they were unsafe or weren’t sure.

Clearly, the problem with GMO’s is partly due to a lack of knowledge.  The general public simply does not know what GMO’s are, how they are created, how they are propagated, and how they affect foods.  If they knew more precisely what GMO’s are, it is possible that the public would view them more favorably.   It is also possible that people would have a negative reaction if they really knew what is being done to their food.

In Europe and the United Kingdom, there is very little GMO food available due to regulatory restrictions that have been in place since the late 1990’s.  Public disapproval of GMO’s appeared earlier in Europe than in the US, although similar levels of concern have developed; actual public knowledge about the process by which GMO’s are created is as low in Europe as it is in the US.  The public attitude towards GMO’s has been reflected, in Europe, in regulatory restrictions that have prevented the import of most GMO’s from the US.  Likewise, since 1989, regulations have prevented the import of beef that has been treated with growth hormones to Europe, despite the disapproval of a World Trade Organization dispute panel.

This is a marked contrast to the situation in the US, where GMO’s have been widely available without restrictions.  The reasons for this are complex and relate to differences in the way the issue was handled by the government; in the US, the economic advantages of GMO’s have trumped the concerns over health effects.  These are issues in European government far beyond the scope of this post, that are nonetheless fascinating.   Oddly, European regulations on such matters as environmental pollution, controls on new drugs, pesticides, hormones, etc. were more favorable to industry than those in the US in the 1960’s and 1970’s, while a reversal occurred in the 1980’s.

Further information on the situation in Europe is available at the following sites:

A 2001 report by the Council on Foreign Relations: CFR report 2001 that goes into detail on the regulatory process in Europe.

The European Commission has a site that goes into great detail on regulations, research, and so on: Euro Commission takes you to the index site that will give you more than you ever wanted to know about European regulations.

The opinion polls that we have discussed were found at the following sites:

The Rutgers report can be found at: http://humeco.rutgers.edu/documents_PDF/news/GMlabelingperceptions.pdf

Here’s a link to a Vox.com poll with more detail about scientific attitudes: http://www.vox.com/2015/1/29/7947695/gmos-safety-poll

The ABC news poll can be found here: http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=97567

Here’s another link: food safety center with a list of polls supporting mandatory labeling.

 

 

 

 

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