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U.S. Public Divided Over GM, Organic Food

Most Americans see health benefits in organics, a sizable minority sees health risks in GM foods
2 December 2016. The American public is almost evenly divided about the benefits of genetically-modified and organic food, with those divisions not breaking along easily defined or familiar lines. These attitudes and others concerning food science are contained in a report released today by the Pew Research Center that conducted the survey.

The report, The New Food Fights: U.S. Public Divides Over Food Science, compiles data from 1,480 adults in the U.S. queried in May and June 2016. The survey focuses largely on attitudes the authors call “food ideologies,” particularly beliefs and preferences surrounding genetically modified and organic foods.

The findings show about half (48%) of the American public overall believes genetically modified foods are no better or worse for a person’s health than non-GM food, with 4 in 10 (39%) respondents indicating non-GM foods are better for one’s health, and 10 percent believing GM food is more healthy than the non-GM types. On the value of organic produce, a similar close divide emerges: a majority (55%) say organic varieties is better for one’s health, while 4 in 10 say there’s no health difference between organic and conventional produce, and barely 3 percent say say organic produce is worse.

The report’s authors note that behind these close divisions, attitudes toward GM and organic food emerge as distinct belief systems that defy familiar political and demographic categories and labels. For example, Americans who care a great deal about the issue of genetically modified food account for about 1 in 6 individuals (16%), but are strongly against GM foods and very much in favor of organics. Some three-quarters of this group (75%) says GM foods are worse than non-GM foods for one’s health, and 8 in 10 (81%) indicate organic food is healthier. Among people with little or no concern about GM food, on the other hand, 17 percent say GM foods are worse for people’s health, and little more than one-third (35%) believe organic food is healthier.

A similar percentage of Americans, 18 percent, agrees with the statement, “My main focus is eating healthy and nutritious,” and among this group, people say they follow news about GM foods closely, but express options about GM foods and health similar to those less concerned about eating healthy and nutritious foods. Otherwise, say the authors, people expressing strong opinions on GM foods and nutrition both eat and shop differently from the public at large.

Among age groups, about half (48%) of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 consider GM foods worse for your health, compared to 3 in 10 (29%) of people 65 and over expressing this opinion. Between genders, however, differences in food attitudes are less clear. Somewhat more women (20%) than men (12%) say they care deeply about GM food, while women tend to be more pessimistic about the impact of GM foods on society. But party politics appear to play little if any role in attitudes toward GM foods, with equal numbers (16%) each of Republicans and Democrats indicating they care a great deal about the issue.

Americans express some trust in scientists over the issue of food, and while scientists are trusted more than industry leaders, levels of trust in scientists are still not high. Only about one-third of Americans (32%) say scientists understand the health effects of GM foods very well, and about the same percentage (35%) trust scientists a lot to provide full and accurate information on the issue. Food industry leaders, on the other hand, are barely trusted at all by the public, with only about 1 in 10 indicating a lot of trust they will provide full and accurate information.

The findings come from a panel of 1,480 individuals age 18 and over in the U.S. who take part in American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of randomly selected adults living in households, created by Pew Research Center. Most (1,330) participants completed the survey online, while 150 sent in their forms by mail. The survey was conducted between 10 May and 6 June in 2016.

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