Global Issues >> Biotechnology


Genetically Modified Food
A strong majority believes that genetically modifying food can produce benefits in the future, and thus a majority favors continued research on the development of such foods, and a strong majority rejects the argument that doing so is immoral. At the same time, though, Americans are divided on whether foods that people eat should be genetically modified now; whether genetically modified foods are safe; or whether they are a good thing. A majority says that it would avoid eating genetically modified food, but this resistance is not deep-seated, as a majority also says that it would probably buy such food if it was cheaper, tasted better or was less apt to require the use of pesticides.

A strong majority of Americans believes genetically modified (GM) foods will provide benefits in the future. In the April 2000 Texas A&M survey, more than two in three (65%) agreed that "GM food will bring benefits to a lot of people." [1] In the June 2000 Harris survey, 66% believed it to be at least "somewhat likely" that as a result of agriculture biotechnology "agricultural production will increase." Just 29% thought that would not happen. [2]

When Americans think about the benefits of biotech foods, they primarily think of higher yields and greater agricultural productivity. When asked in the December 1999 Angus Reid/Economist survey to mention the "main benefits or advantages of genetically modified foods," the most cited responses were increased yields, productivity or efficiency (24%), improved nutritional value or health benefits (16%), and improved quality of food (13%). Importantly, nearly one in four (24%) said they could not mention any benefits of GM foods. [3]

On balance, a majority favors the continued research on GM foods. The January 2001 Mellman-POS survey found that 65% of Americans favor "scientific research into genetic modification of food." Thirty-seven percent strongly favored more research, while a total of just 26% were opposed. [4]

Also, a strong majority does not have a moral objection to applying biotechnology to foods. A December 1999 CBS News survey found that only about one-third (32%) believed using "scientific techniques to do things like enhance the flavor and nutrients, or prolong the freshness of food" is "wrong." Two-thirds (65%) said doing so was "right." [5] The Texas A&M study asked respondents to say how "morally acceptable" certain biotechnology applications were, using a scale in which 1 meant "definitely disagree" and 4 meant "definitely agree". The idea of "taking genes from one plant species and transferring them into crop plants, to make them more resistant to insect pests" received a mean rating of 3.1. "Using modern biotechnology in the preparation of foods, for example, to make them higher in protein, keep longer or taste better" was rated 2.91. Using the same scale, the survey also found that the public believes these kinds of biotechnology applications should be "encouraged." Crop plants received solid support, earning a 3.03 mean rating, while food biotechnology was rated a more modest 2.75. [6] The Texas A&M study found Americans to be divided about whether "GM food is fundamentally against nature": 47% agreed with that statement, but 44% disagreed. But this assertion can be viewed as a scientific fact, not a statement of moral principle. [7]

Divided Response to the Use of Biotechnology in Foods

Although it appears that most Americans see potential benefits in the future and do not oppose research and development of GM foods, they are divided on the actual application of biotechnology in the food they eat in the present. A July 2005 Gallup survey found that 45% supported "the use of biotechnology in agriculture and food production" while 45% did not. This is a slight decline in support from a Gallup poll in July 2001, in which a bare majority (52%) were in support, while 38% said they were opposed. A similar result was found in an April 2000 Gallup survey, which found 51% in support and 41% opposed. [8] When asked to speculate about the risks and benefits of "developing and growing these new plants and crops" in a June 2000 Harris survey, 48% said the risks outweigh the benefits; 38% thought the benefits are greater than the risks. [9] Similarly, the May 2000 Texas A&M study found that 45% disagreed with the assertion that "the risks of GM foods are acceptable," while 39% agreed. [10] Also, in the February 2000 Angus Reid study, 48% disagreed that "in the long run, the potential benefits of genetically modified foods will outweigh the potential risks." Forty-three percent agreed with that statement. [11]

Americans are divided on whether GM foods are safe. In a July 2003 ABC News poll, respondents were told that "scientists can change the genes in some food crops and farm animals to make them grow faster or bigger and be more resistant to bugs, weeds and disease," and then were asked if such foods are or are not safe to eat. Respondents were closely divided--46% to 46%. [12] However, asked if GM foods pose a "serious health hazard to consumers"(emphasis added), a modest majority of 54% rejected the idea, while just 33% said that they do, (Gallup, July 2005). The same question was asked in July 2001, April 2000 and September1999, with virtually identical responses. [13] Other questions that address the safety of GM food elicit more divided responses. A June 2000 Harris survey revealed that a plurality (47%) believed it "not very likely" or "not at all likely" that "food based on [GM] crops will be poisonous or cause disease in the people who eat them." Forty-five percent said they believe it is at least somewhat likely. [14] Also in April 2000, 45% rejected the assertion that "GM food could cause global disaster." Forty-one percent agreed with the statement. [15]

When offered the option of saying that they do not have enough information to make a judgment about the safety of GM foods, a plurality will choose that option, as 46% did in a January 2001 survey by the Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies. In that poll, 29% said they thought "genetically modified foods" are "basically safe" and 25% considered them "basically unsafe." [16]

Asked whether GM food is generally something positive or negative, the public is also divided, but leans toward a negative view. In February 2000, Angus Reid described GM food as food that "comes from a plant or animal whose genes have been changed through the use of new scientific techniques" and asked respondents if they "see the trend toward genetically modified foods" as positive or negative. A slight majority of 51% said they viewed this trend as negative, while 40% viewed it positively. [17] When the January 2001 Mellman-POS survey asked about "biotechnology used in food production," 25% had a favorable view of this and 30% had an unfavorable view (25% did not have an opinion, and 19% had never heard of it). [18] In the same poll, just 21% had a favorable view of "genetically modified foods", while 44% had a negative view (don't know: 24%, never heard: 15%). [19]

There are some indications that worries about GM food may be increasing. In September 1998 45% saw the trend to GM foods as negative, while, as mentioned, in February 2000 this had risen to 51%. In September 1998 Angus Reid found that 51% agreed that benefits would outweigh risks, while in February 2000 this percentage dropped to 43% (see note 11 above).

Health concerns are the primary lens through which Americans view the issue of GM foods. In the February 2000 Angus Reid study, respondents were given four possibilities and asked "what kind of an issue" they believed the issue of GM foods to be. Forty-four percent said it is a "food safety/public health" issue; 32% called it a "science and technology" issue; 14% thought it to be a "moral/ethical" issue; and 8% viewed it as an "environmental" issue. A year and a half earlier, by contrast, a clear plurality (41%) felt genetic modification of foods was a science and technology issue, while just 23% called it a food safety/public health issue and 14% said it was a moral issue. [20] A December 1999 Angus Reid/Economist poll asked an open-ended question about "the main risks or disadvantages of genetically modified foods." Twenty-six percent mentioned food safety or allergy concerns (26%), and another 9% expressed concern about viruses and mutations. About one in five (21%) noted the experimental nature and uncertainty of the technology (21%). No other specific concerns garnered double digits. [21] This means that when people think about the risks of biotechnology, they focus increasingly on what those risks mean for the safety of the evening meal and less about the moral or scientific issues involved. Indeed, the January 2001 Mellman-POS poll, 64% said that "generically modified foods" is one of the things that worries them at least "some" when they think about "food safety". Thirty-four percent said it worries them "the most" or "a great deal"; only 29% said they worry "not too much" or "not at all" about GM foods. [22] In that survey, 73% said they were "concerned" (41% "very concerned") about the recall of "taco shells and other corn products...found to contain a type of genetically modified corn that had not been cleared for human consumption." [23]

Majority Resists Eating GM Foods

Several polls indicate that a majority resists eating or buying GM foods. Some polls have asked whether respondents would be more or less likely to buy a grocery item that had been genetically modified, or contained such ingredients. In a July 2003 ABC News poll, 55% said they would be less likely to buy such foods, while a meager 6% said they would be more likely (no difference: 37%). [24] This is virtually the same as what a December 1999 Angus Reid/Economist survey found: in that case, 60% said they would be at least somewhat less likely to buy the product, just 4% were more likely, and 34% said it would make no difference. When asked how they would react if they saw a label saying food had not been genetically modified, 51% said they would be more likely to buy the food, while 39% said such a label would make no difference to them (9% less likely; ABC, July 2003). [25]

Other questions have shown similar results. In the January 2001 Mellman-POS survey, 54% said they would be "unlikely" to "eat genetically modified foods," while just 38% said they would be likely to do so. [26] A December 1998 Time/CNN poll found 58% saying they would not buy food "labeled as genetically engineered". [27] Also, in March 1994, a Wirthlin Group survey found that if they "learn[ed] that a product [they] frequently use was being genetically engineered," a majority would either "look for another brand" (41%) or "stop using [a] product" (14%). Just 38% said they would "keep using the product". [28] In the same survey, people were asked to imagine two companies, one of which "manufactures and distributes some food products that have genetically engineered ingredients and some products which have all natural ingredients," while the other company "manufactures and distributes only food products which have all natural ingredients." Although nearly half (48%) would buy from either company, assuming all other things being equal, 45% would buy exclusively from the company that used all natural ingredients. Just 5% said they would buy from the company with genetically engineered products. [29]

Interestingly, polls show that Americans are largely ignorant of how widespread GM foods are in the food supply. According to a January 2001 survey, only 14% of Americans believed, correctly, that more than half of all foods in the supermarket contain GM ingredients (Mellman-POS). [30] In the same survey, just 19% thought they had eaten GM foods, but more than three out of five thought they had not. In a 1999 Wirthlin survey, only 33% thought there were "any foods produced through biotechnology" in the supermarket. [31]

However, when the public is informed how much food currently marketed is produced using biotechnology, they are much more likely to view genetic modification as safe. In a Mellman-POS survey, the public was initially very divided as to the safety of GM foods (29% safe, 25% unsafe, 46% don't know). But when another question offered the information that "more than half of the products at the grocery store are produced using some form of biotechnology or genetic modification," and then asked again about perceptions of safety, those saying GM is safe rose to 48% and those saying it is unsafe fell to 21% (January 2001). [32]

Moreover, even though the public expresses a desire not to buy GM foods, when informed of the potential benefits of biotechnology, a majority says they would be likely to buy such products, suggesting that the opposition to eating GM foods may not be deep-seated. May 2000 polling by Wirthlin found that substantial majorities would be more likely to buy GM produce when told that it had been modified to "be protected from insect damage and required fewer pesticide applications" (69%) or to "taste better or fresher" (55%). Only 18% said that the use of biotechnology to make crops that yielded "cooking oil with reduced saturated fat" would have a "negative effect" on their purchase decision. Responses to all of these questions have remained fairly steady since 1997. [33] In a March 1994 Wirthlin survey when respondents were told to assume that items from the company making genetically engineered products "were consistently less expensive", only 27% said they would exclusively buy from the company whose products were all natural. [34]