Ignorance of Frankenfoods

I was reading yesterday about a Pew study on attitudes towards genetically modified foods. Americans are largely against this technology, with 46% opposing its use compared to 27% in favor. The interesting part was that respondents are not well informed about the fact that they are already eating GMFs. According to the press release, 26% believe they have eaten GMFs and 60% believe they have not. However, according to this Los Angeles Times article about the report, genetically modified foods are widespread in the American diet. "Today, 89% of soybeans, 83% of cotton and 61% of corn" are genetically modified to resist pests or tolerate weedkillers.

Given that people are afraid of this technology, it’s surprising that they are so wrong about how much they are being exposed to it. I would speculate that people think that these foods are harmful, and the fact that they don’t ever hear about anyone being harmed means that they assume that no one is being exposed to them. If GMFs actually were harmful and were in widespread use, people would be aware of problems. It’s interesting that the absence of such reports is apparently taken to indicate low levels of use rather than a reduction in judgments of harmfulness.

This fits into the article I mentioned last week about inaccurate perceptions of risk. Maybe our lives today are so safe that there’s no real harm in misjudging risk. It might be that other factors such as social signaling are more important.

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  • http://www.davisking.com DK

    The LAT article and your quotes aren’t very convincing. Unless I’ve missed a new cotton-eating fad, the fact that 83% of cotton is GMO says nothing about the role of GMO in our diet. Many of the anti-pesticide GMO corns are only available as animal feed. And the article only mentions soy ingredients in processed foods, which are generally in small quantities.

    I agree with your overall point, but I’d like to see better evidence.

  • Little Skeptic

    As usual when it comes to so-called biases, the laymen are less biased than the experts, because the laymen account for complex but common-sense factors that statistics and abstraction-obsessed statisticians and economists overlook. If one believes, as many do, that the primary risk from GMO is contamination of natural genomes, then the estimate about whether one has personally eaten those foods is largely irrelevant.

  • http://www.gmoafrica.org/ James Wachai

    As we debate the issue of genetically modified foods, let’s bear in mind that no study has ever found them harmful. Scientists after scientists have proved that genetically modified crops are safe for human consumption and the environment. The World Health Organization (WHO)has also said genetically modified foods are safe to eat.

    The so-called fears about genetically modified organisms are unfounded and uncalled for. They have no basis at all.Therefore, they should be ignored.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Tangurena/ Tangurena

    >bear in mind that no study has ever found them harmful…
    That statement is false. I recommend you read the book “Trust Us, We’re Experts” as there are more than zero studies showing GMO to be harmful. One British lab ended up making toxic potatoes that would damage the livers of anyone eating them.

    I know for certain that I’ve been exposed to GMO. I don’t like it because the companies spend more time and money lobbying governments than they do making sure that their tinkering is harmless. I try to buy foods that do not contain GMO, and when I can get some land, I will grow my own foods so that I can know what goes into my body.

    >If GMFs actually were harmful and were in widespread use, people would be aware of problems.
    How about, “if tobacco was harmful and in widespread use, people would be aware of problems.” The tobacco industry spent a fortune over almost 100 years claiming that there was no evidence that tobacco use was harmful at all. They hired doctors and scientists to counterfeit evidence that tobacco not only wasn’t harmful, it was healthy. To this day, one doesn’t have to look very far to find people willing to claim that tobacco isn’t harmful. Businesses have learned the lesson from the tobacco industry’s fight against tobacco regulation and use those very same tactics to fake up pseudoscientific mumbledypeg to fool the public into thinking that it is safe, or that some “debate” is going on and they should wait until it is settled. That foolery is at the root of the Intelligent Design/Creationism argument as well as the denials from the “there ain’t no global warming” crowd. You’ll find plenty of examples in the book “Trust Us, We’re Experts.”

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    The larger issue here is, how do we help the layman who doesn’t want to spend more then ten minutes (ten seconds would be even better) thinking about the problem? How did you commenters come up with your contradictory information about the risks of GM foods? Doesn’t it bother you that someone else came up with a completely opposite understanding?

    I see this over and over with these kinds of issues. I have little confidence that studying the available information as a lay person is any way to go about solving the problem, largely because it appears that the results of this process are either completely random, or else subject to very significant biases (so that whatever my predispositions and prejudices may be on the issue, my “study” will simply leave me more confirmed than ever that I am right.)

  • Carl Shulman

    Hal,

    A freestanding ’10-second’ solution is probably impossible: the closest approach would be a very highly trusted 3rd-party’s certification (Consumer Reports?) but that still requires a significant effort to verify the credibility of the 3rd party initially. The establishment of non-profits funded by vested interests (on both sides) and the exertion of political influence on government regulatory bodies worsen the signal-to-noise ratio to the point where such a verification may be too challenging for the median consumer to bother with.

    Failures of certification are particularly troubling because they are likely to lead people to rely on hearsay from acquaintances:

    http://www.organicconsumers.org/ge/newpoll102303.cfm
    * 40% of respondents falsely thought that tomatoes genetically modified with genes from catfish would taste “fishy”;
    * 31% mistakenly believed that eating genetically modified fruit could modify a person’s genes;
    * 43% falsely asserted that ordinary tomatoes don’t contain genes, only those that are genetically modified have genes.