What Do Consumers Think of GMOs?

We partnered with Hartman Group on research that delved into consumer perceptions of genetically modified foods; about half (is that good or bad?) will avoid them.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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When it comes to genetically modified organisms in food, two conclusions can be drawn: There’s a segment of the public that’s receptive to arguments for the use of GMOs … but the GMO labeling regulations under consideration by USDA may make that group shrink.

Twenty-four years have passed since FDA approved the first GMO food — or bioengineered food, as the USDA would have it — but GMOs are relatively new to public discourse. As recently as 2010, a quarter of the public told researchers at the Hartman Group they had never heard of GMOs. Today, only cave dwellers without social media accounts say the same, and half of the rest don’t like what they’re hearing.

Organic and Natural 2018 is a biennial research study by Hartman Group (www.hartman-group.com), and the Bellevue, Wash., research firm gave Food Processing exclusive use of its considerable section on GMOs. Respondents, all consumers, expressed near-unanimous (97 percent) awareness of GMOs, although many were sketchy on the details. Almost half indicated they avoid buying products with GMOs, while a quarter of those shoppers frankly admitted they don’t know enough about them. A third want to withhold support of companies that use GMOs in their formulations.

More troubling for mainstream products with GMO ingredients is how shoppers are voting with their pocketbooks. Consumers told Hartman researchers conventional food and beverage products constitute 54 percent of their grocery purchases, down from 65 percent two years earlier. More than a third of buyers of organic and natural products cited avoidance of GMO products as a motivating factor.

Those sentiments are supported by the meteoric rise in non-GMO certified products, from a baseline of $348.8 million in 2010 to $26 billion today, according to the Non-GMO Project. Despite an eight-year head start, certified organic sales now trail those certified as non-GMO in many categories.

What people say and what they do are not necessarily the same; nonetheless, the swelling ranks of people who say they avoid buying GMO foods are cause for mild panic. When Hartman asked 11 years ago, only 15 percent said they avoid them. The proportion has increased in every subsequent survey, tripling to 46 percent.

Avoidance of GMOs Table

Regulators react to GMO Legislation

People want to know where their food comes from and what’s in it, and that includes GMO ingredients. Congress responded to that demand in 2016 with GMO labeling legislation, although in no small part because food companies wanted to pre-empt a patchwork of state labeling laws.

USDA, not FDA, was charged with writing the specific regulation, and the agency's Agricultural Marketing Service just opened a 60-day comment period on what it proposes (the comment period ends July 3). The early reviews are in: People hate them.

That doesn’t bode well for the trust-building and frank discussions that many insist are needed if avoidance of GMO foods isn’t going to mushroom.

Two-thirds in Hartman’s survey believe GMO labeling should be mandatory, and two in five say they would be more likely to buy products that contained them if a food company was up front about explaining why they use them. If that isn’t an endorsement for greater transparency, what is?

At this point in the review, USDA offers three approaches. Food and beverage companies can refer to the product as a “bioengineered food,” “contains a bioengineered food ingredient,” or something along those lines. Alternatively, one of three symbols can appear on the label. One resembles a smiley face, another is a smiling sun with the letters “be” as eyes, and the third is an uppercase “BE” on what may or may not be the branch of a tree.

Critics say the smiley face and sunshine whitewash this controversial issue.

The final option is a QR code with accompanying text to the effect of “scan icon for more information.” This should delight the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. After pouring millions into campaigns against state-by-state referendums on labeling, GMA launched its SmartLabel initiative, a voluntary labeling program. GMA claims 25,000 products now carry a SmartLabel QR code, but it’s questionable if individuals seeking information about GMOs would choose the website of a company selling products with GMO ingredients over social media or other sources.

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