Americans pay little attention to genetically modified foods, have difficulty separating fact from fiction when it comes to the science behind them and are willing to believe unsubstantiated rumors about them.
According to a national study of 1,200 Americans commissioned by the Food Policy Institute (FPI) at Rutgers-Cook College, while most Americans say they are interested in the technology and have opinions about it, most lack the tools and background needed for an informed assessment.
Genetic modification (GM) involves the transfer of genes from one plant or animal to another with the purpose of expressing a desired trait, such as pest resistance or increased productivity. Estimates suggest that as much as 80% of processed foods in the United States 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.
Despite the abundance of products with GM ingredients, the FPI study found that fewer than half of Americans (48%) are aware that such products are currently for sale in supermarkets, and fewer than a third (31%) realize they regularly consume GM foods. Even those who say they are aware of GM foods are confused as to which foods are out there; the majority (79%) incorrectly believed that GM tomatoes are available, possibly due to Calgene's highly publicized (but now defunct) GM tomato marketing effort in the mid 1990s.
On a quiz about the basic science behind GM technology, 87 percent of Americans could not score a passing grade. Seven in ten (70%) don't believe it is possible to transfer animal genes into plants, six in ten (60%) don't realize that ordinary tomatoes contain genes, and more than half (58%) believe that tomatoes modified with genes from a catfish would probably taste fishy. Fewer than half (45%) understand that eating a genetically modified fruit would not cause their own genes to become modified.
"People seem to have a great number of misconceptions about the technology," said the study's lead author, Rutgers psychologist, Dr. William Hallman. "As a result, they seem to be willing to believe just about anything they hear about GM foods." Most Americans (87%) find it believable that people have had allergic reactions to GM food and more than half (56%) find it believable that a large fast-food chain used chickens so altered by genetic modification that they are not considered chickens anymore (both untrue rumors widely disseminated on the Internet).
According to Hallman, "This willingness to believe the worst when it comes to GM food is indicative of a public that is poorly informed about the technology and therefore unable to separate fact from fiction."
Most Americans say they have heard little and know little about GM foods, and nearly two-thirds say they have never talked about the technology with anyone. Nevertheless, many respondents reported strong support or opposition for the technology, with 27% approving and 23% disapproving of it. However, most Americans (49%) said they were unsure or could not take a position.
"The reason Americans are undecided is because they don't really know anything about it," said co-author, Carl Hebden. "Maybe they hear bits and pieces about it once in a while, but nothing of any substance. A lot of people are hearing about it for the first time while taking the survey."
Even though they lack a solid information base, most Americans report passive interest in the topic of GM food. That is, while very few have actually looked for information about GM food, most say they would be very interested in watching television shows about the technology, particularly shows addressing concern about potential risks.
"GM food continues to fly under the public radar," said Hallman. "It's fascinating that such a revolutionary technology that so many people say they are interested in continues to evade public attention. Given that people know very little about GM foods, and most Americans seem to be willing to believe the worst about them, how will they feel when they realize that they've been eating them for years?"
The study is the third in a series funded by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems Program (IFAFS) to examine consumer perceptions of agricultural biotechnology. Copies of the report Americans and GM Food: Knowledge, Opinion & Interest in 2004 can be downloaded at no cost at the Food Policy Institute Website.