Factors Affecting College Students' Knowledge and Opinions of Genetically Modified Foods

By Laux, Chad M.; Mosher, Gretchen A. et al. | Journal of Technology Studies, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Factors Affecting College Students' Knowledge and Opinions of Genetically Modified Foods


Laux, Chad M., Mosher, Gretchen A., Freeman, Steven A., Journal of Technology Studies


Abstract

The use of biotechnology in food and agricultural applications has increased greatly during the past decade and is considered by many to be a controversial topic. Drawing upon a previous national study, a new survey was conducted of U.S. and international college students at a large, land-grant, Research University to determine factors that may affect opinions about genetically modified (GM) food products. Factors examined included nationality, discipline area of study, perceptions of safety, and awareness and levels of acceptance regarding GM food. Results indicated students born outside the United States had more negative opinions about genetically modified foods than did Americanborn students. Students who were studying a physical science-based curriculum had a more positive opinion of GM food than did students studying a curriculum that was not based in the physical science. In addition, students who reported a higher level of acceptance of genetically modified foods felt more positively about the safety of the technology.

Introduction

The use of biotechnology in food and agriculture has increased greatly during the past decade (Comstock, 2001; Knight, 2006). Global use of genetically modified (GM) plants has increased rapidly since their commercial introduction in 1996. Desirable traits (e.g., insect and herbicide resistance and improved nutritional content) have resulted in a large increase in the number of hectares planted globally. The prevalence of GM crops has increased every year since their introduction, and this will continue (James, 2008). Consumer opinions are important to the success of technological innovation in the marketplace. The purpose of this study was to examine college students' opinions in the areas of awareness, acceptance, and safety of GM foods with regard to nationality and field of study. The survey model is based upon a national survey concerning biotechnology.

Genetic modification of foods is one of many examples of the gap between scientists and nonscientists (Chappell & Hartz, 1998). Accordingly, Hoban (2001) stated that consumer awareness and understanding of biotechnology innovation has grown slowly. Despite the increased use of GM food products, GM technology is not well understood in the United States. Several recent surveys demonstrate this lack of understanding by the American public (Falk et al., 2002; Hallman & Hebden, 2005; Hallman, Hebden, Cuite, Aquino, & Lang, 2004). Although 60 to 70% of food products sold at supermarkets include ingredients using genetic modification, many consumers remain unaware of their use (Byrne, 2006). A lack of understanding among the public may lead to uncertainty about the safety of GM food products (Byrne, 2006, Hoban, 2001; Shanahan, 2003).

Consumer opinion of GM food safety also differs by nationality (Knight, 2006). Research reveals that U.S. consumers are the least concerned about GM food safety issues whereas European and Asian consumers report more concern (Chern, Rickertsen, Tsubio, & Fu, 2003; Fritz & Fischer, 2007; Pew Initiative, 2005). Even after more than a decade of debate and the increased support of governments in South America and China, the European Union and environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth, continue to reject the cultivation and use of genetically modified crops (Weise, 2010).

College students form a subpopulation of the general public and an area of interest concerning GM food opinions. Within the United States, college students may mingle among nationalities, a previously cited factor of perceptions concerning GM food safety. College students are likely to be younger and more highly educated than the general population and may have a greater awareness of agriculture biotechnology (Finke & Kim, 2003). Science-based coursework, laboratory work, and the beliefs of professors and instructors may contribute to awareness, and these beliefs may be reinforced within the student's major area of study.

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