For years now, we've been writing about and assessing the importance to Americans' nutrition from organic foods (not very) and genetically modified (GMO) or genetically engineered foods (potentially highly). Based on comments from our own website and journalists' reports in the popular media, it's been hard to tell what people (except for activists pro and con) really think. Nearly two years ago we noted how different the assessments of scientists and non-scientist consumers were with respect to GMO foods, for example. Thus it's instructive to examine a recent report from the Pew Research Center about attitudes and beliefs about organic and GMO foods.
The report is based on randomly selected US adults (at least 18 years old), who responded to questions by email or regular mail. A total of 1480 people responded. About equal numbers of men and women participated, and most were white. Respondents' answers did not seem to be significantly affected by demographics, but it did by their "food ideologies," as explained below.
Over half the respondents thought organic produce was superior to conventional, while a sizable minority thought they were neither better or worse. In contract, slightly fewer than half thought GM foods weren't either better or worse for health than other foods.
About 16 percent of respondents said they cared a great deal about the issue of GM foods, while 18 percent said that the statement that "my main focus is on eating healthy and nutritious" describes them very well. Of these minorities, 81 percent of the former group said that organic foods are better for health and so did 62 percent of the latter group. And again, 75 percent of the first group said that GM foods are worse for health, as did 42 percent of the second group. Thus much of the general attitudes about both organic an GM foods seem to be attributable to people with very decided ideas about foods.
One demographic component does seem to have an impact on people's attitudes about foods — age. The younger respondents were more likely to think organic foods were better, and GM foods riskier. Although the report doesn't delve deeper into this difference, we wonder if it might have something to do with younger respondents spending more time on social media and getting input about foods that way.
An encouraging result of the survey was that "Fully 72% of U.S. adults say even though new studies sometimes conflict with prior findings “the core ideas about how to eat healthy are pretty well understood.' ” That suggests that consumers are not as prone to suffer from "study whiplash" or changing their food outlook when studies that contradict earlier work is published.
The task for us, based on the results of this survey, is how to reach those whose personal philosophies have enshrined organic foods and demonized those produced by means of genetic engineering. In other words, how to encourage them to pay more attention to science. Ideas are welcome.