Are GMOs winning the fight for Americans’ holiday meals? A new Pew Research Center report picks the public’s collective brain on the issue.


Image credits Pineapple Supply Co. / Pexels.

Like them or hate them, the one thing we can all agree about GMOs is that they’re controversial. The debate around them is so heated that it’s surprising they don’t spontaneously cook themselves into GMO meals on-shelf. Scientists, as a group, are all for them — they could solve a lot of problems, such as combat drought and reduce CO2 emissions from agriculture while feeding more mouths than before — so there’s a need for them. With the FDA approval of modified salmon farming last year, there is also a precedent. But until people are actually willing to eat these crops and animals, farmers won’t be able to start growing them. So how do the people of America feel about GMOs?

Well, the Pew Research Center has just the answer (and it’s a very comprehensive one): a 99-page strong report on the attitudes toward genetic modification, organic food, and the importance of eating healthy. And on the off-chance you’re not looking forward to reading a report for the next two days or so, here’s the highlights from their survey.

There are no clear-drawn groups

There’s a lot of mixed opinions on GMOs. To make things even more complicated, there aren’t clear groups of people all believing the same things about the issue. For example, 18% of respondents said that their main interest was in eating healthy and nutritious food. Some 16% said they care about genetically modified foods “a whole lot”. But these are not the same people. Only about a third of those in the first category also fall into the latter. Almost half the respondents (46%) say that they care about the issue of GMOs “not too much” or “not at all.”

And whether someone wants to eat healthily doesn’t seem to make him or her more likely to believe that GMOs are bad for people — which is usually what critics shell out at the stuff even though it’s complete, if fully organic, baloney. One visible link identified by the study is that which develops between attitudes about healthy eating and organic food. Those who reported their “main focus” was on healthy eating were three times as likely to eat organic food compared with those who consider healthy eating “not at all important.”

Views about GMOs and their effect on health, as well as the health qualities of organic food didn’t vary much between men and women, or between rich and poor — with one exception; unsurprisingly, rich people did actually buy more organic food, and they did so more regularly.

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And lastly, people aren’t “against GMO” per se as much as they’re “pro-organic“, which is to say that some three-quarters of respondents said they bought local food recently, and two-thirds saying they had purchased organic food. Only 44% reported they’d recently purchased food labeled as “GMO-free”.

Political affiliation doesn’t play a role in what food you like

Red or Blue, both sides of the political spectrum had roughly the same views on food. Republicans and Democrats feel that GMOs are worse for your health in about equal shares (39% R vs 40% D). This result comes in stark contrast to Pew’s results on climate change says Cary Funk, the Pew Research Center’s associate director of research on science and society. Here, Republicans are more likely to consider it a natural event or dismiss it altogether, while liberal Democrats are much more likely to believe that humans are responsible. The only polarization the survey found is that more Democrats think organic food is healthier, with 60% vs 50% of Republicans. Still, it’s a very narrow difference.

There was consensus on one point: 72% of respondents said healthy eating habits are paramount to a long and healthy life. An additional 25% said it’s “somewhat important”. Most, however (58%) also say they fall short of their goals and that “most days I probably should be eating healthier.”

But probably most troubling is the next point.

Most of Americans don’t give two modified beans about what scientists think about GMOs.

39 percent of the respondents believe that GMOs are worse for your health than non-GM food, flying in the face of pretty much all of scientific literature. From those 16% that said they care about the GM foods issue “a great deal”, three-quarters think GMOs are bad for your health. More than 50% of respondents think that “about half or fewer” of scientists agree that GM foods are safe. Only a tiny 14% think that “almost all” scientists agree that GM foods are safe to eat — which they do.

Americans also don’t really trust scientists on the issue. The survey revealed that Americans feel researchers are influenced by the best available scientific evidence, a desire to help their industries, and desire to advance their careers. They also feel that these factors are put ahead of the public’s best interest. There’s a silver lining, though! The public still trusts scientists more than politicians, the survey found — 60% say they want scientists to play a major role in setting up policies regarding GM food, while only 24% would want elected officials to work through the issue. That’s a kind of victory, though truth be told, who among us really trusts politicians?

Still, the main takeaway from this is that people should definitely start trusting GMOs more than their politicians.