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Do Scientists Understand Genetically Modified Foods?

Americans aren’t so sure, according to a new survey.

By Nathan Collins


People protest against chemical giant Monsanto in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Though Americans don’t know a whole lot about genetically modified (GM) food, we remain skeptical both of GM foods and of the scientists who study them: According to a new survey, a majority of Americans think the jury’s still out, despite several recent reports to the contrary.

“A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded there was no persuasive evidence that genetically engineered crops have caused health or environmental problems,” as did a similar review of European Union-funded research, write the Pew Research Center’s Cary Funk and Lee Rainie. “But in the public’s view, scientists appear divided over the safety of GM foods.”

Funk and Rainie base that conclusion on a survey of 1,480 people who took part in the broader American Trends Panel. Their report, “The New Food Fights,” also describes Americans’ attitudes toward GM foods as well as organic foods. The researchers found that 39 percent of Americans—including 48 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29—believe GM foods are worse for our health than conventionally grown foods.

That number drops a bit among those with postgraduate degrees or a high degree of familiarity with science. Among those who say they’ve heard a lot about GM foods, 50 percent think they’re bad for health.

Perhaps that has something to do with attitudes toward food scientists themselves. Only 14 percent thought that “almost all” scientists agreed GM foods were safe to eat, when, in fact. 88 percent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science think they’re safe to eat, according to a 2014 Pew study. Still, 23 percent of Americans thought fewer than half or almost no scientists thought it was safe to consume GM foods.

Meanwhile, four in five Americans had at least some suspicion that researchers don’t actually understand the health effects of GM foods—while 44 percent think scientists understand those effects “fairly well,” another third say they understand them “not too well” or “not at all well.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans trust scientists and small farmers more than food industry leaders, politicians, and the media. Distrust in news coverage of GM foods is especially high among those with the most knowledge of science—three-quarters of that group say the media does a bad job of covering the issue, compared with 45 percent of those with low science knowledge.

On the other hand, the majority of those surveyed weren’t worried about what Funk and Rainie call “news whiplash,” the seemingly never-ending, back-and-forth news about what is and isn’t good for you to eat. Although some experts fear that flip-flopping could leave average folks confused and distrustful, 61 percent of Americans agreed that conflicting studies were a sign not of bad research, but instead of “constantly improving” science.