Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

How Do Consumers Feel about GM Foods

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Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in th...

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Opinions about genetically modified foods have changed over the decades since their use. Initially, American consumers appeared not to be concerned possibly due to not knowing the extent they were being used as ingredients, or they thought that these new genetically engineered versions of soy, canola, corn, and cottonseed plants were thoroughly tested before adding them to the food supply. Nevertheless, concern over the impact on the food supply remains low in the United States, but is substantially elevated in Europe.

For example, in 1996, only 34% of those asked said that they had heard either a “lot” or “something” about biotechnology.  By 2001, this number increased to 47%.  When asked an open-ended question regarding what they were most concerned about when it comes to food safety, the majority of consumers stated that they were worried about food handling, bacterial contamination, or pesticide residue issues. Very few people (2%) replied that they were concerned about biotechnology and appeared confused over the science.

The Thomson Reuters Pulse ™ conducted a very recent telephone survey of 3025 participants called
The National Survey of Healthcare Consumers: Genetically Engineered Food in October 2010.  The results follow:

Question 1: On a scale of 1 to 5- where 1 is “Do Not Understand at All” and 5 is “Understand Completely” – how well do you understand genetically engineered food?

Not at all: 16.3%

Completely: 25.0%

On the scale: 2 = 11.5%

On the scale: 3 = 25.1%

On the scale: 4 = 22.1%

Question 2: What is your opinion regarding the safety of genetically engineered foods? Would you say:

1.    Genetically engineered foods are not safe?

2.    You are unsure of the safety of genetically engineered foods?

3.    Genetically engineered foods are safe.

Not safe: 14.6%

Unsure: 64.1%

Safe: 21.4%

Question 3: Do you believe that foods should be labeled to indicate that they have been genetically engineered or contain ingredients that have been genetically engineered?  (These results represent the percentage of people who answered YES.

YES = 93.1%

Question 4: Would you eat the following foods knowing that they have been genetically engineered?

1.    Fish

2.    Meat

3.    Vegetables, fruits, grains

Fish: 35.1%

Meat: 38.3%

Vegetables, fruits, grains: 59.9%

Question 5: Prior to today, did you know that some of the foods available in stores today have been genetically engineered? (These results represent the percentage of people who answered YES)

YES = 69.2%

A recent ABC News article is entitled “Shoppers Wary of GM Foods Find They’re Everywhere”. Three more crops were approved in the last month with salmon on the horizon.  There is not much evidence that they are either harmful or safe.  One major reason for this is that big agricultural companies do the testing themselves (usually short-term) and refuse to share their patented seeds with independent researchers.

The Federal government says no extensive testing is necessary because GM seeds are not much different than conventional seeds.  Food additives only need extensive testing if the new ingredient alters the food or food supply to a great extent.

Proponents also say the GM foods have been in the food supply for about a decade and appear to cause no health problems.  How can we know if testing has been limited?  Some health effects may be subtle and go undetected.

Many people don’t know what to think.  In an International Food Information Council Foundation poll, about one-half of the people surveyed have either been neutral on the topic or didn’t know enough to have an opinion.  This debate will continue as more consumers learn more about the extent of foods affected and more about some disturbing animal studies that have crept into the scientific literature.  Whether there is merit to these studies remains to be determined by peer review.  As for my opinion, I used to feel that this technology was the answer to world hunger, higher crop yields, enhanced nutritional quality, to name a few of the proposed benefits.  However, the more I research the topic, the more concerned I become primarily to the lack of testing and the confusion surrounding the process.

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