Newswise — If people see the words "genetically modified" on a food label, they're more likely to buy it if they feel informed about such products. Yet consumers often feel ill-informed about such foods, according to a survey by a University of Arkansas researcher and her colleague, and producers currently provide little information to educate their customers.
Pamela Brady, a research professor at the Institute of Food Science and Engineering, and her brother John T. Brady, program director in the department of consumer and textile sciences at Ohio State University-Lima, reported their findings in a recent issue of the Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences. Their survey of U.S. consumers shows that people who know more about genetically modified foods are more likely to purchase goods that contain these items.
"We found that as education level went up, reported knowledge went up," Pamela Brady said. "But when we asked, 'Do you feel like you know enough?' most people said they didn't."
Although three-quarters of all genetically modified crops are grown in the United States, about 70 percent of American consumers report inadequate knowledge of genetically modified foods.
Although gene modification is a new technology, Pamela Brady points out that humans have been genetically modifying their food through animal and plant husbandry for thousands of years. Modern genetic engineering techniques allow scientists to insert specific genes into a plant or animal and get results rapidly without having to go through the time-consuming process of selective breeding. Genetic modifications to crops have included increased insect resistance, enhanced nutrient value and herbicide resistance. For instance, researchers have inserted a gene into corn that produces a natural insecticide to protect the plants from corn borers. The new technology has its own benefits and problems.
John Brady became interested in American consumer attitudes towards genetically modified foods after witnessing strong resistance to such foods in Europe. The researchers used a national consumer survey modified from one developed in Europe to examine consumer attitudes and knowledge about genetically modified foods in the United States.
They found that knowledge of genetically modified foods was higher for people with some college education than for people with no high school degree. Almost 30 percent of people whose education consisted of a high school degree or less said they had not heard of genetically modified food.
They also found that people who felt they knew something about genetically modified foods were more likely to be willing to purchase such foods.
However, most people at all education levels said they had heard of genetically modified foods but did not feel informed about them. When asked where information about genetically modified food should be found, more than 90 percent of respondents suggested the food label.
"Unfortunately, you can't get much more information on a label. There's not much room there and already lots of information provided," Pamela Brady said.
Despite that limitation, the researchers believe their survey shows that companies that produce genetically modified foods and educators like those at the extension service can and should be educating people about these products.
"There's an opportunity here to help consumers understand more about genetically modified foods," she said.
"Like anything else, genetically modified foods are good and bad. Helping consumers understand the technology and make informed decisions about these products is the challenge for food companies and educators," she said.