Part II: Three Truths about Public’s Perception of Genetic Modification

ANALYSIS - The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the American food system is controversial, write Oistein Thorsen and Garret Higgins, both with trie.
calendar icon 26 June 2014
clock icon 7 minute read

To read Part I (Public Awareness of GM, Labeling) of the article, click here.

In Part II of the article, the authors share three American consumer perceptions based on their review of recent public perception research from sources like the International Food Information Center (IFIC), Gallup and the New York Times. What emerges are the following three truths:

  1. People are concerned and largely skeptical of GMOs and thus in favor of labeling.
  2. Distrust of the food industry and general ignorance about what constitutes genetic modification - its prevalence and common applications - are major drivers of public concern.
  3. The public needs more accurate information from trustable sources if misperceptions are to be corrected.

Trust in the Industry

Polling data shows that consumers do not trust the food industry. A March 2014 white paper published by Sullivan Higdon & Sink found that only 34% of Americans think the agriculture industry is transparent, and 30% of Americans think the food industry is transparent.

Failure to communicate the purpose and definitions of various types of GM contributes to widespread distrust of the food industry. Although SHS found that there has been improvement in consumer trust. Their 2014 study showed a modest uptick over the 2012 results. In 2012, a 22% thought the agriculture industry is transparent, and only 19% thought the food industry is transparent.

Popular demand for mandatory labeling of GM is intimately related to trust (or lack thereof) of the agriculture and food industries. Fifty-seven percent of respondents in ABC News’s poll said they would be less likely to buy food labeled as containing GMO. Another 52% said they would buy food labeled as organic instead of buying GM food (ABC News, 2013).

Respondents to the IFIC’s poll tended to be more trusting of the FDA’s ability to regulate the industry. Asked how likely they are to buy GM fish if the FDA rules it safe, 49% would be somewhat likely and 20% would be very likely.

One of the IFIC’s survey questions asked, “Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that meat, milk, and eggs from animals enhanced through genetic engineering are safe [emphasis added], how likely are you to buy them?,” to which the majority answered they would likely buy those products. 20% said “very likely,” and 49% said “somewhat likely.” (The remaining 31% still demurred.)

The response to that question would indicate that consumers’ attitudes change when presented with new information and assurances. Many respondents likely didn’t know, before being told in the questionnaire, that the FDA has approved many GM foods, or that GM food is even readily available in stores today. This shows a need for both food companies, regulators and third party sources like the scientific community, to put more emphasis on honest communication that can help build the consumers’ trust.

Sources of Information

SHS’s report finds that 67% of people think that having more knowledge about food production is important, and 65% want to know more about where food comes from (SHS, 2014).

The data also shows that people tend to consider friends and family to be the most reliable sources of food-related information. Fifty-seven percent believed friends/family to be “somewhat or very trustworthy.” (ibid.) Only 54% of respondents said they trust the medical community, and 44% trust the academic community (ibid.)

Fifty-two percent trust the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and 51% trust the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) (ibid.). A paltry 30% said that they trust mass media and news organizations (although this percentage is up from 17% in 2012). The least trusted sources of information are: politicians (trusted by 19%), animal pharmaceutical companies (24%), bloggers and social media (25%).

There is a major discrepancy between the scientific community’s and the public’s general consensus on genetic engineering. Indeed, the editors of Nature Biotechnology argue that the benefits of GM have not been adequately been explained to consumers.

GM food has an uncanny ability to spook consumers. […] It does not matter that no adverse health effects have been recorded from eating them. Nor does it matter that august agencies, such as the World Health Organization, the US National Academy of Sciences, the European Commission or the American Medical Association, have come out with ringing endorsements of their safety. The fact is, negative attitudes remain entrenched and widespread. And changing them will require a concerted and long-term effort to develop GM foods that clearly provide convincing benefits to consumers—something that seed companies have conspicuously failed to do over the past decade. (Nature Biotechnology, 2013).

The widespread concern about GM is a function of the public’s overall distrust and skepticism of the food industry and their motives. For too long the business of food has been kept out of sights of the general public. The ever-growing interest in where our food comes from is creating increased demands for transparency, and with transparency comes the need to also explain to the consumers why food is made the way it is.

In this process some practices will end as they become indefensible, for others effectively communicating the benefits and potential of new practices and technology might win through. Only one thing is for sure, in this new environment where the consumer is recognized as a key stakeholder in the food chain, “don’t worry, just trust us” won’t do any more.

This story is a two-part series, to read Part I (Public Awareness of GM, Labeling) of the article, click here.


Gallup. "Nutrition and Food." Gallup, Inc., July 2013. Web. <>.

Food Standards Agency. "GM Labeling: Exploring Public Responses to the Labeling of GM Food and the Use of GM-free Labeling." Social Science Research Unit, Food Standards Agency, Jan. 2013. Web. <>.

Hallman, William K., Cara L. Cuite, and Xenia K. Morin. "Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods." Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, 1 Nov. 2013. Web. <>.

Harmon, Amy. "A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops." New York Times, 4 Jan. 2014. Web. <>.

Hopkinson, Jenny. "Elizabeth Warren Joins GMO Labeling Fray." Politico LLC, 17 Sept. 2013. Web. <>.

International Food Information Center. "2014 IFIC Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey." International Food Information Center, 28 May 2014. Web. <>.

Kopicki, Allison. "Strong Support for Labeling Modified Foods." New York Times, 27 July 2013. Web. <>.

Langer, Gary. "Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified Foods." June 2013. Web. <

Nature Biotechnology. "Contrary to Popular Belief." Nature Biotechnology 31.767 (2013): N. pag. Web. <>.
Scientific American. "Labels for GMO Foods Are a Bad Idea." Scientific American, 20 Aug. 2013. Web. <>.

Sullivan Higdon & Sink. "Emerging Faith in Food Production." Sullivan Higdon & Sink, Mar. 2014. Web. <>.
USDA. "Recent Trends in GE Adoption." US Department Of Agriculture, July 2013. Web. <>.

Washington Post. "Should Genetically Modified Food Be Labeled?" Washington Post, 7 Sept. 2010. Web. <>.

Garret Higgins is a graduate from Pace University, where he studied business and political science. He is currently an intern with trieSM in New York City.

Sarah Mikesell


Sarah Mikesell grew up on a five-generation family farming operation in Ohio, USA, where her family still farms. She feels extraordinarily lucky to get to do what she loves - write about livestock and crop agriculture. You can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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