Consumers and Genetically Modified Foods

Article excerpt

A national consumer survey examined the knowledge and attitudes of consumers about genetically modified food as well as consumers' purchase intent and their desire for information. In an attempt to better define consumers most likely to use genetically modified foods, relationships between selected consumer characteristics and attitudes of consumers about genetically modified foods were studied. More than 90% of respondents indicated that they want to be informed about the presence or absence of genetically modified material in foods. Perceived knowledge about genetically modified food was significantly related to respondent's education. Intent to purchase genetically modified foods or ingredients was significantly related to perceived knowledge. The primary finding of this study was that knowledge and education are the most important factors shaping consumers' perceived knowledge of and attitudes about genetically modified foods. However, there seems to be a large gap between the information needs of consumers and what producers are willing to supply or what current policy mandates.

Genetically modified or genetically engineered organisms are plants or animals that have had their genetic material modified to enhance a desired characteristic or to inhibit an undesirable characteristic (General Accounting Office, 2002). The modification might involve importing genetic material from one plant or animal to another, rearrangement of genetic material within a plant or animal, or removal of genetic material from a plant or animal. Modifications can result in an almost infinite variety of genetic combinations (Sheehy, 1998). For centuries, farmers have crossbred plants and animals to promote desired characteristics in the offspring. It has only been recently that science has advanced to the point where inter- and intra-species manipulation of genetic material can be used to create desired product characteristics such as resistance to specific diseases, tolerance to agricultural chemicals or enhanced nutritional profiles (see sidebar). Crops developed using genetic modification were first made available commercially in 1996.

Proponents of genetic modification argue that using this technology can create foods that look and taste better, last longer, and are more nutritious. Such technology can produce crops that are resistant to diseases and pests and may yield food components that require less processing. Applications of genetic modification allow farmers to produce more and better crops using less time and fewer chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. The end result, according to the genetic modification advocates, is that consumers will have access to a greater variety of better foods at lower costs than in the past ("What Biotech Food Can Do," 2002).

Opponents of genetically modified foods argue that these foods represent an unknown health risk to consumers especially since they have the potential of containing allergens not traditionally identified with a food. Opponents further contend that genetically modified crops can damage the ecology of an area and that there are moral issues involved in the modification of a plant or animal's genetic material. Moreover, some opponents worry about the economic consequences of genetic modification because rich and poor nations have different access to technology or some companies may use access to these technologies to control markets (Wohl, 1998).

Genetically modified crops are remarkably common in the US. Three fourths of genetically modified crops grown in the world are planted in the US. In 2001, 69% of cotton, 68% of soybeans, 55% of canola, and 26% of corn grown in the US was genetically engineered. Other genetically engineered crops that are available but not widely adopted included sugar beets, potatoes, and sweet corn (Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, 2001).

Even with the widespread use of genetically modified crops, American consumers have remarkably little knowledge about genetically modified organisms (Hoban, 1998; Food and Drug Administration, 2000). …