John Phipps: A "Disturbing Trend" in Public Acceptance of GMOs

011219 John's World
The Pew Research asked consumers a question about genetically modified food and the impact on one's health. John Phipps says the answers reveal a disturbing trend.
( Farm Journal )

I have complained often about the lack of horizontal polling for public acceptance of genetically modified food – where the same question is asked in the same way at regular intervals, so the results can be compared to detect opinion trends. Finally, we have one good effort from one of our best public opinion research organizations – The Pew Research Center.

Unfortunately, these rigorous results are not what many in agriculture want the answer to be. First, here is the question that was asked both in 2016 and 2018: “Genetically modified foods are [blank] for one’s health than foods with no genetically modified ingredients”. Respondents could choose better, worse or neither to fill in the blank.

In 2018 the results were 49% said worse, 44% said neither, and 5% said better. While these results are discouraging for GM proponents, more disturbing is the trend.

In 2016, only 39 percent said GM foods are worse. Digging deeper, those with high science knowledge were essentially unchanged, but those with less science knowledge showed sharp increases in the doubts about GM foods. The bottom line is not only are people who can understand the issue not embracing GMOs more, but GM acceptance is diminishing markedly among the rest of the population.

I hope Pew continues to conduct these surveys, but even with just two dots to connect, GM proponents should seriously reconsider their strategy. Maybe even ask some questions like, is the now considerable advocation effort worth it? While a tenuous case could be made with without the constant pro-GMO public relations effort, the results could have been a lot worse, but that’s a pretty small accomplishment. Is it unthinkable to just disengage from this debate? What if our advocating is the driving factor for this trend? That cannot be ruled out.

At the very least, the mini-industry of speakers and organizations that preach to the choir at farmer and agribusiness meetings should be recognized as at best handholding for anxious GMO users, not an effective influence on public opinion.

We don’t appear to have much to lose if simply get out of consumer faces, do our jobs, and let the spotlight shift to other food quarrels. In nothing else, giving it a rest will generate some very usable data for planning future action.