One survey found large majority want gene-edited products to carry detailed labels – and health concerns remain strong. Claire Robinson reports
As the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launches a new PR campaign called "Feed your Mind" to convince people that GM foods and crops are desirable and beneficial, new surveys have been conducted to try to find out how the public currently views the technology, including new gene-editing techniques.
The findings make unsettling reading for GMO proponents.
According to Pew Research Center surveys, about half of US adults (51%) think GMOs are worse for people’s health than foods with no genetically modified ingredients, while 41% say GM foods have a neutral effect on health. Just 7% say they are better for health than other foods.
Views about the health effects of such foods grew more negative between 2016 and 2018 and have been steady since then, according to Pew's surveys, the latest of which was conducted in October 2019.
A large majority of this group thinks GM foods are at least fairly likely to result in health problems for the population as a whole (88%) or create problems for the environment (77%).
However, half or more also say that such foods are at least fairly likely to help increase the global food supply (64%) or result in more affordably priced food (50%). These were the figures that the pro-GMO lobby group Cornell Alliance for Science chose to emphasize in its article about the surveys.
The belief that GMOs will help feed the world is a product of persistent PR messaging by the GMO lobby. In reality, GM crops don't increase intrinsic yield and in some cases (e.g. GM soy) they decrease it (see the book GMO Myths and Truths for references). And world hunger is not caused by under-production, but by poverty. The world's poor can't afford to buy the food that is normally available even in the least affluent countries, because they don't have money.
As for GM producing more affordable food, we're not aware of any direct evidence for that, though there is evidence in the case of cotton and corn for GM seeds being more expensive for farmers to buy than non-GM seeds. And a recent paper on the long-term impacts of Bt cotton in India found that due to pest resistance to Bt and surging populations of non-target pests, "farmers now spend more on pesticides today than before the introduction of Bt".
Such GMO-related disadvantages, many involving food crops, are not uncommon – a whole section of GMO Myths and Truths is devoted to them. Yet the social and environmental costs involved in such ventures are often ignored in talk of "affordability".
The claimed "positive" findings of the Pew surveys might suggest that if you repeat an unsubstantiated claim often enough, some people – even a majority – will believe it.
Norwegian consumer survey
A Norwegian consumer survey has been reported by the pro-GMO lobby group the Alliance for Science as showing that "Norwegians see advantages to gene editing food". The Alliance says, "Norwegian consumers are receptive to using gene editing tools in agriculture if they bring social, economic and environmental benefits."
Wording in the report itself, however, suggests that this conclusion was reached largely because the survey respondents were "led" by being given false information about gene editing. The report says that only about half the survey respondents had heard about gene editing.
That means that many of those surveyed are likely to have depended heavily if not entirely on the information they were given by the survey organisers in forming their opinions. And that information was extraordinarily biased.
They were then given "three brief informational texts explaining the principles behind traditional breeding, genetic modification and gene editing".
This "information" presented traditional breeding as a technique that has been "used since the Stone Age"! There was no mention of the fact that traditional breeding continues to provide high-performing crops with many of the desirable traits that have long been promised but never achieved for GM.
The survey also presented first-generation GM technology to the respondents as a way to attain "bigger crops". This is a false claim since, as already mentioned, there is no GM gene for high yield and even the US Dept of Agriculture and the US National Academies of Sciences, in otherwise GMO-boosting reports, have concluded that GM does not increase yield potential.
The definition of gene editing, described as "the latest method", was uncritically positive:
"This method makes it possible to make targeted changes to the DNA, for example, removing, adding or exchanging genes or parts of genes (a common method is called CRISPR). In the examples in this study, gene editing refers to making genetic changes that mimic those that can happen by themselves in the wild or the changes one could get through traditional breeding (e.g. inserting genes from one potato variety into another potato variety). In these cases, no genes from other species are inserted. The purpose of gene editing is to adapt plant and animal traits."
Respondents were not told that there's no evidence that the changes induced by gene editing "mimic" natural ones. Nor were they told about the massive problems of imprecision and unpredictable outcomes that are afflicting CRISPR and other gene-editing techniques, or of the problems of toxicity and allergenicity that could result.
The survey organisers may as well have cut to the chase and asked the survey participants, "Faced with the challenge of feeding the world in the face of climate change and an expanding population, would you choose Stone Age agriculture or the latest methods?"
Respondents were given "examples" of agricultural gene editing, which included "reducing pesticide use and crop losses in plants, climate adaptation of crop plants, increasing nutrient content in crop plants, increasing crop plant yields, improving animal and fish health and reducing the environmental impact of the aquaculture industry".
Of course, the trouble with this kind of framing is that if you are told that gene editing will do all these wonderful things, you would have to be perverse to say you don't approve of it.
However, in reality, these "benefits" of gene editing are either imaginary or only exist in the artificial conditions of small laboratory studies, the findings of which have not been trialled in real farming conditions But the respondents were not told that.
So the "information" they were given fits into the familiar model of GMO survey framing that can be characterized as "GM foods and crops can feed the world, solve all our environmental problems, and enable the blind to see again. Thinking about your attitude to GM foods and crops, are you a) in favour; b) neither in favour nor against; c) against?"
We're being satirical, but this type of framing is not far from what we've seen in previous surveys that purport to show support for GM in agriculture.
Conflicts of interest
It is perhaps not surprising that the survey was organised by GENEinnovate, a collection of breeding companies whose aim is "To develop innovative solutions to industry concerns using gene editing technology", in a collaboration with research institutes and the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board.
The survey project was led by Sigrid Bratlie, a member of the GENEinnovate research project, who is herself an enthusiastic promoter of gene editing. She told the Alliance for Science that gene editing applications "can improve animal welfare, which is something that many consumers care about, and can reduce the need for using medicines and other treatments, such as de-lousing chemicals in aquaculture, which has importance for the environment".
Needless to say, gene editing has done none of these things and is just as unlikely as first-generation GM technology to deliver on these promises.
Warnings for gene editing promoters
Remarkably, even this highly biased survey offers important warnings for gene editing promoters. The survey found that "most consumers are negative about using gene editing for purposes that are not perceived to be of significant benefit to society or which may impact animal welfare negatively, such as changing the appearance of animal and plant products or enhancing production traits in livestock".
In terms of gene-edited products currently on the market, this suggests the non-browning mushroom may already have gone down the toilet. And although Calyxt's gene-edited high oleic soybean oil is touted to be healthier than other oils, no research has directly shown health benefits. Also, it's not clear why those wanting high oleic oils can't just buy olive oil.
In addition, the survey reveals that safety concerns about GM have most definitely not gone away. "Most" respondents were "somewhat or very worried that the use of gene editing in plants or livestock could pose risks to health and the environment". They are correct to worry about this, since many studies on first-generation GM crops and foods have shown adverse effects on health and environment, as summarised in GMO Myths and Truths.
Most crucially, a chief demand of the pro-gene editing lobby – that these products should be exempted from GMO regulatory safety assessments and labelling – is strongly opposed by the respondents.
On labelling, a massive 76% of respondents said "it is very or fairly important that gene edited products are labelled to indicate that they have been produced by genetic engineering". And the respondents want more specific information than is already provided by existing GMO labels: "Even more important, in the respondents’ opinion, is knowing which trait has been changed and for what purpose. Over 80 per cent respond that the label should contain this type of information."
Regarding regulatory safety assessments, "Consumers have a fairly high level of trust that gene edited products developed by Norwegian researchers and breeding companies are beneficial to society and that they are safe for health and the environment when they have been approved by Norwegian authorities." (our emphasis)
However, this upbeat conclusion assumes that gene-edited products will be subjected to regulatory safety assessments. Otherwise, the implication is that Norwegian consumers will not necessarily "trust" that they are safe.
FMI Foundation survey
The food industry association, the FMI Foundation has published a report for the American Seed Trade Association, Farm Foundation and Farm Bureau Federation, titled "Consumer acceptance of gene edited foods: A nationwide survey on US consumer beliefs, knowledge, understanding, and willingness to pay for gene-edited foods under different information treatments".
The survey was administered to 4,487 US food shoppers in September 2019. Key findings were:
* Regardless of food product, presence of processing, or information, mean willingness-to- pay for organic labels was higher than the other food labels/claims. Respondents considered organic food to be healthier, safer, and more beneficial for animal welfare, but also anticipated organic being more expensive.
* Willingness-to-pay for gene-edited products is lower than that for conventional and bioengineered ones. However, willingness-to-pay significantly increased with the provision of "information about the benefits of gene-editing technology". Benefits to the environment and consumers show an overall stronger impact than benefits to the farmers.
* Consumers have a very low level of awareness and knowledge about gene-edited products when compared to what FMI calls the "mediocre knowledge and high awareness" of GMOs. About half of the respondents indicated they had never heard of gene editing.
* Respondents completed open-ended word association tasks, which FMI says "revealed fear associated with the unknown". Negatively connoted words dominated mentions in relation to “gene editing". Furthermore, these mentions closely resembled those given for genetically modified products.
* Despite the positive perception of the organic products, respondents mostly purchase conventionally produced food products. Even though respondents have higher willingness- to-pay for organic food, it is also higher priced. When directly asked about primary purchase motivations, respondents typically rank price and taste first, while production methods usually fell somewhere in the middle of a list of possible motivations.
The FMI report claims that benefits generated by gene-editing include increased disease and pest resistance, environmental benefits, and improved food product quality, including health and nutritional enhancements. But in GMWatch's view, as with the Norwegian survey, these so-called benefits are still in the realm of promises and will likely prove hollow.
The FDA will doubtless use the findings of all three surveys to go all-out on their propaganda campaign to convince the public that there are "benefits" to be gained from embracing GMOs, including gene-edited products. However, the results suggest that they will have an uphill battle.
The findings suggest that while public opinion on genetic engineering technology as a whole is nuanced, many consumers still don't want genetically modified (including gene-edited) foods – and a large majority of those surveyed want to see gene-edited foods assessed for safety and labelled. In particular, the Norwegian consumer survey respondents' call for risk assessment and labelling for gene-edited products reflects our own stance and that of many other consumer and environmental groups in Europe and across the world.
The fact that this demand is not confined to specialist GMO-critical groups but is shared by the broader public should be a wakeup call to the GMO lobby. It should also send a signal to governments to keep genetically engineered foods and seeds (including gene-edited organisms) strictly regulated and labelled so that those who wish to avoid them can do so.