GMO Answers website attracts more than 2 million visits a year

A screen shot from the GMO Answers website.

A recent survey has detected a sharp uptick in the percentage of Americans who consider foods with genetically engineered ingredients to be worse for their health.

The 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 49 percent of respondents viewed such foods as less healthful than those without genetically engineered ingredients, up from 39 percent just two years earlier.

The jump was highest among people with “low science knowledge,” as determined by questions included in the survey: 52 percent of them considered genetically modified foods worse for their health, up from 29 percent in 2016.

“In contrast, there is no significant change over time in beliefs about GM foods among those with high science knowledge,” according to the Pew report. “This finding is consistent with the idea that those with less information about genetic engineering tend to hold ‘soft attitudes,' more likely to shift over time.”

Proponents of biotechnology believe the survey results point to a need for “science, technology, engineering and math,” or STEM, education in schools.

“We still have a lot of work to do, and it starts with a lot of basic information,” said Aimee Hood, regulatory communications and information management lead at Bayer Crop Science.

The company is a member of GMO Answers, a network of biotech industry stakeholders that conducts outreach regarding biotechnology.

Bayer has worked with the 4-H youth organization to establish a Science Matters program to provide members with an enhanced understand of STEM and Hood regularly gives talks about the subject in sixth-grade classrooms.

“That’s probably the most challenging audience I face, because they ask a lot of questions,” she said.

Beyond biotechnology, science education can have broader societal impacts such as addressing the distrust of vaccines, Hood said.

As for the Pew survey, Hood said she didn’t want to disparage the study but said it runs counter to some of GMO Answers’ own polling, which has “seen sentiment change in a positive way,” albeit slightly.

It’s possible the disparity is due to the way each organization worded its questions, Hood said.

Rather than take Pew’s survey results as an example of a threat to genetic engineering, Hood say the study shows the need for the biotech industry to engage with the public.

“We’re all inundated with a lot of information, some good information and some misinformation,” she said. “We can’t back away from the conversation. We need to lean in and find a different way to have that conversation.”

It’s possible the survey results reflect a more trusting attitude among educated and financially successful people, compared to people with lower educational attainment, who may be more suspicious of corporations and government regulators, said Bill Freese, science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit critical of U.S. biotech policy.

Food science in particular tends to be in flux — for example, people were once told margarine is healthier than butter, whereas that advice has now largely been reversed, Freese said.

“It’s shown itself to be wrong on many occasions, so it’s proper to look on it with skepticism,” he said.

Freese also said he’s dubious whether Pew was able to accurately discern scientific knowledge from a “scattering of superficial questions.”

The perception of biotech health risks seems to be aligned with concerns for the environment, as the survey found 56 percent of respondents believed genetically engineered crops were very likely or highly likely to “create problems for the environment,” he said.

Distrust of genetically modified foods has likely increased due to the public debate over the federal biotech labeling law and the controversy over glyphosate’s link to cancer risks, Freese said.

Glyphosate is widely associated with genetically engineered crops that are resistant to the herbicide in the public’s mind, he said. “People understand that it’s sprayed on a lot of crops.”

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