Americans' Knowledge of Genetically Modified Foods Remains Low and Opinions On Safety Still Split


Washington, DC - 09/19/2003 - Americans' knowledge of genetically modified (GM) foods remains low and their opinions about its safety are just as divided as they were two years ago, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. The survey also shows that knowing FDA reviewed and approved a GM product can increase public confidence and that public support for GM products decreases as uses of the technology shift from plants to animals.

Using data from a similar survey released by the Pew Initiative in March 2001 for tracking purposes, the survey released today suggests:

  • Americans' knowledge about GM foods remains low--even as GM technology is increasingly applied to agriculture. In 2001, 44% had heard "a great deal" or "some" about genetically modified foods; today, that number is 34%, a 10 point decline. Similarly, 45% had heard "a great deal" or "some" about biotechnology use in food production; today, that number is 36%, a nine point decline. Although it has been estimated that 70-75% of processed foods in grocery stores contain GM foods, just 24% of Americans believe they have eaten GM foods while 58% say they have not, suggesting that Americans continue not to recognize the extent to which GM foods are present in foods they eat every day.  
  • Opposition to GM foods has softened somewhat in the last two years but opinions about safety remain split. Today, 25% of people polled reported they would support the introduction of GM foods to the U.S. food supply, down only 1 point from 26% in 2001. At the same time, opposition has declined ten points, from 58% opposed in 2001 to 48% opposed today. But Americans have essentially the same opinion about the overall safety of GM foods as they did in 2001: 27% of consumers say that GM foods are "basically safe" (down from 29%), while 25% say that they are "basically unsafe" (the same as in 2001). Taken together, these numbers indicate that the American public continues to have divided opinions about GM foods.
The survey released today also probed topics rarely explored in widely-available opinion polls about agricultural biotechnology, including how Americans feel about the way GM products are regulated in the U.S. and the application of genetic engineering technology to animals. Findings show:

  • Americans oppose a ban on GM foods, but are strongly supportive of a regulatory process that directly involves the FDA. Sixty-four percent (64%) of Americans disagree with the statement, "genetically modified foods should not be allowed to be sold even if the Food and Drug Administration believes they are safe," but very few believe that GM foods should be allowed to go on the market without FDA review. Eighty-nine percent (89%) of Americans agree with the statement "Companies should be required to submit safety data to the Food and Drug Administration for review, and no genetically modified food product should be allowed on the market until the FDA determines it is safe." Taken together, these statistics demonstrate that consumers want to see that FDA is involved with a genetically modified food product before it is put on the market.  
  • Americans are far more comfortable with genetic modifications to plants than animals, and are particularly supportive of genetic modifications that improve health. The majority of people polled (58%) oppose scientific research into genetic modifications of animals. When asked to rate how "comfortable" they are with genetic modifications of different types of life forms, consumers say they are most comfortable with modifications of plants, followed by genetic modifications of microbes, animals used for food, insects and then animals used for other purposes, such as horses, cats and dogs. When asked about specific purposes for pursuing genetic modifications, nearly every purpose that involved plants (e.g. reducing the need to use pesticides) was considered a better reason to pursue genetic modifications than those that involved animals (e.g. produce beef with less fat).
"When it comes to genetically modified products, the U.S. public clearly supports the role of regulatory bodies like the FDA to provide an independent safety approval for new biotechnology food products," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. "This finding suggests that the actions of government agencies are likely to play an important role in influencing public acceptance of the next generation of agricultural biotechnology products."

The nationwide survey, conducted August 5-10, 2003 by The Mellman Group and Public Opinion Strategies, consisted of telephone interviews of 1,000 American consumers. The margin of error for this survey is +/- 3.1%. The margin of error is higher for subgroups. Data from a similar survey, released by the Pew Initiative in March 2001, was used for tracking purposes.

View a topline survey results 

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