Americans Continue to Fear GMOs Despite Not Knowing Much About Them

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People don’t always know why they want what they say they want. Take the bill Congress passed last week, for example, that would require the labeling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs (President Obama still has to sign it, but he’s expected to). According to a recent phone survey conducted by by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of such a rule — 88 percent of the 1,008 respondents agreed that “All products containing GMOs should be labeled as such,” combining the survey’s “strongly agree” and “agree” categories.

Whoa. Clearly people are really worried about the health threat posed by GMOs. Only thing is, scientists have developed a pretty firm consensus that the GMOs we’re currently munching on don’t pose a health threat. There’s already been a lot of research on this, with at least 16 major science organizations around the world having released statements supporting the responsible use of GMOs, and highlighting the lack of evidence they are harmful. And just in May, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report echoing these same findings. Like any other technology, of course, the genetic modification of corn and other crops needs to be regulated and conducted responsibly, but there’s just no solid evidence behind GMO health fears.

So why, despite this consensus, are so many people scared of this technology? Some other questions from the survey are illuminating. The Annenberg Center’s writeup notes that “only 1 in 5 people (22 percent) agreed that scientists have not found any risks to human health from eating genetically modified foods. Nearly half (48 percent) disagreed with that statement, while 25 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. Only 39 percent of people agreed that ‘GMO crops are safe to eat,’ while 27 percent disagreed with that statement, and 30 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.” Something’s not getting communicated here, in other words, and it’s leading to a lot of misplaced health fears — there have got to be a ton of people, by now, who are proudly devouring GMO-free foods laden with sugar and fat and unnecessary calories.

Either way, the new requirements don’t exactly scream transparency. As NPR reported last week, the bill allows food manufacturers to stick a QR code on their items’ packaging rather than an actual GMO/GMO-free label, meaning anyone who wants to check will have to whip out their phone and get sent to a website for that information. What’s the point of a labeling law if it doesn’t force manufacturers to label? But in this case, the law’s shortcomings might end up being a good thing, from the point of view of tamping down on pointless fears. Because GMOs are safe to eat.