Americans’ Opinions About Genetically Modified Foods Remain Divided, But Majority Want A Strong Regulatory System(2)

Contact: Mona Milller, 202.552.2135


Washington, D.C. - 12/08/2004 - Americans’ attitudes about genetically modified (GM) foods remain divided, although their opinions appear not be deeply held and can be influenced by new information and events, according to a new analysis released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. The analysis, developed from a survey and focus groups conducted over the past few months, also shows that regardless of their attitudes about GM food, a majority of Americans support a strong regulatory system for GM foods, and that their discomfort increases as genetic engineering technology shifts from plants to animals. The analysis also shows that support for a particular product is tied to the degree to which a product is perceived to directly benefit an individual (or his/her family). Using data from similar surveys released by the Pew Initiative in March 2001 and September 2003 for tracking purposes, the analysis of the focus groups and opinion survey released today provides a unique and in-depth understanding of current consumer attitudes towards GM foods. Highlights include:

  • Americans’ attitudes toward GM food remain divided and stable, though not necessarily deeply held. Opinions about the safety of GM foods remain mixed and have not significantly changed in three years. In 2004, 30% of consumers said that GM foods are “basically safe” (up from 29% in 2001 and 27% in 2003), while 27% say that they are “basically unsafe” (up from 25% in both 2001 and 2003). However, opposition to “introducing genetically modified foods into the US food supply” has declined from 58% in 2001 to 47% today, an 11-point decrease. Consumers’ attitudes about the safety of GM improve significantly when informed that they are already consuming foods developed through biotechnology, indicating that attitudes remain open to change in the light of new information. However, the level of awareness about GM foods remains low, with only 32% of consumers reporting that they heard a great deal or some about genetically modified foods in 2004, a 12-point decline since 2001.      
  • Though they do not know much about the regulation of GM foods, consumers support a strong regulatory system. Of the 40% of Americans who reported hearing about regulations for GM foods, 8% said there was “too much” regulation of GM foods, 19% say there was the right amount of regulation, and a 40% plurality said there is “too little” regulation of GM foods. That represents a 5-point increase in the percentage of Americans saying there was “too little” regulation since 2003 (from 35% to 40%) and a 2-point decrease in the percentage saying there was “too much” (from 10% to 8%). Consumers favor the present policy of removing “unsafe” GM foods from the market (85%), but favored equally strongly that regulators should ensure that GM foods are safe before they come to market (85%). Indeed, a large majority of consumers (81%) believed that FDA should approve the safety of GM foods before they come to market, even if there would be “substantial delays.”      
  • Americans remain most comfortable with the genetic modification of plants. When asked to rate how “comfortable” they are with genetic modifications of different types of life forms (on a 0 to 10 scale), consumers say they are most comfortable with modifications of plants (5.94). As was found last year, consumers’ comfort level appears to be inversely related with the evolutionary ladder: after plants, consumers are most comfortable with genetic modifications of microbes (4.14), animals used for food (3.73), insects (3.56), followed by animals used for other purposes (2.29). Once again, consumers are least comfortable with genetic modifications of humans (1.35). Asked specifically about genetic modifications of animals, consumers continue to stand in opposition: 57% say they oppose this research (46% strongly) and 32% favor this type of research. These numbers are largely unchanged from last year (32% favor, 58% oppose).      
  • Consumers are most supportive of those uses of biotechnology that they feel will directly help them and their families. When presented with a battery of possible uses for biotechnology, the top reasons cited by consumers for using biotechnology were to produce more affordable pharmaceutical drugs by using plants (54% very good reason) and to produce less expensive food to reduce hunger around the world (52% very good reason). Those same uses were viewed as having the most positive impact on consumers and their families. A similar relationship existed for most of the items tested.
“Consumer attitudes about GM foods have not hardened in the last few years and still can be shaped by new information or new events – either positive or negative,” said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. “As we saw in the focus groups, widely publicized events like Starlink can have lasting impacts on consumer attitudes. We also heard that consumers want regulators to ensure the safety of GM foods – even if it means delays in getting products to market. And we also heard that regulation can help reassure consumers as biotechnology is applied to create new products that could provide direct benefits to consumers and their families.” The nationwide survey, conducted September 22-26 by The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies, consisted of telephone interviews of 1,000 American consumers. Tracking data come from surveys of the same size, also conducted for the Pew Initiative, on January 22-28, 2001 and August 5-10, 2003 but respectively released in March 2001 and September 2003. The margin of error for this survey is +/- 3.1% at the 95% level of confidence. The margin of error is higher for subgroups.

The four focus groups were conducted in Philadelphia and Des Moines on August 25th and 26th of this year. Approximately twenty consumers were selected (via random phone calls) per state based on their self-described level of interest in science. Groups were segregated by gender for the purposes of testing.

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