Research shows consumers taking personal interest in GMOs

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Consumers want to know how Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) affect health-theirs and their family's-and are less concerned with political or moral issues surrounding GMOs. While they see the value of planting GMO crops in drought-stricken areas and they acknowledge the benefits to farmers-39 percent are concerned about potential health issues caused by GMOs in the food they eat.

In its fourth-annual research project focused on consumers and food, Charleston|Orwig uncovered ample opportunities for companies across the food system to engage with consumers:

• Sixty percent of consumers representing all levels of understanding want to know how GMOs impact theirs and their family's health.

• Forty-nine percent are interested in research on the safety of GMOs and what items are most likely to be produced with GMOs.

• Forty-one percent want to know how GMO food is different from food produced without GMOs and about the potential benefits.

"Food production has become a hot-button topic and consumers consistently hear about GMOs across a number of channels. We wondered about the average consumer's perceived knowledge of GMOs, as well as their concerns and whether they were open to learning more," said Mark Gale, CEO and partner.

Charleston|Orwig commissioned Datassential, a leading research company for the food industry, to conduct the survey of more than 1,000 consumers nationwide. Participants were qualified as having some level of awareness of GMOs.

More than 75 percent of consumers who responded believe they have some understanding of GMOs beyond basic awareness, with 13 percent reporting "very in-depth" understanding, 31 percent "good" understanding and 33 percent "fair." Understanding seemed to rise with income. Among those reporting a "good understanding" of GMOs, 40 percent represented households with annual income of $75,000 to $99,999 and 38 percent reported household income of $50,000 to $74,999.

Overall, consumers in the Charleston|Orwig survey did not support an outright ban on GMOs, but there is strong support for regulation and labeling. Nearly 60 percent believe GMOs should be regulated at the federal level, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the appropriate oversight agency; 51 percent agree with regulation at the state level. Additionally, 53 percent believe food manufacturers and restaurants should identify what items have GMO ingredients.

Greater understanding among men

Of respondents reporting an "in-depth understanding" of GMOs, 41 percent represented the upper spectrum of the millennial generation, ages 26-34. The bulk of these respondents - 55 percent - were parents, and 49 percent of parents had children under age 6.

Overall, men dominated the "in-depth understanding" group at 65 percent. "This suggests the food industry may want to increase engagement with younger males, especially as trends indicate men are exerting more influence at the supermarket," Gale said.

The 13 percent of consumers who report "very in-depth understanding" of GMOs are least likely to be interested in benefits, most likely to perceive disadvantages and most interested in a ban at the corporate or federal level.

Positive attributes

Even though consumers were concerned about whether they or their families can be harmed by GMOs, they cited broad benefits for potential uses:

• 55 percent believe GMOs can assist communities in drought areas

• 54 percent think GMOs can help farmers be more productive and earn more

• 48 percent believe GMOs can play a key role in solving world hunger

• 39 percent believe GMOs can allow foods to be healthier and more nutrient-dense

• 31 percent believe GMO s can improve food safety

In general, consumers perceive the presence of GMOs in their foods and beverages to be much lower than widely accepted industry estimates of 70 percent to 90 percent:

• 52 percent of those who believe they have an in-depth understanding of GMOs indicate that 50 percent or more of their food and beverage purchases include GMOs

• 57 percent of those with awareness but no understanding believe less than 30 percent of their food and beverage purchases include GMOs

The study also indicates that consumers think GMOs are used in products from large corporate-owned farms and "are not available to smaller farming operations."

Marcy Tessmann, Charleston|Orwig president and partner, said that sponsoring consumer research into food-industry issues allows the company to better connect clients with consumers. "We're closely involved with clients who grapple with issues like GMOs every day," she said. "Our annual research projects provide important context and understanding."

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