When it comes to GMO foods, perhaps consumer resistance is less about the technology itself and more about wanting to know when it's been used.

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Shoppers have long wanted to see labels on foods that contain genetically modified ingredients (commonly known as GMOs). Scientists and food manufacturers, however, have tended to oppose such labels, fearing they could be misperceived as a warning, or an indication that a labeled food is less safe than one that doesn’t display a label. Politicians have shared that concern. It took a decade of battles in the state legislature before a pioneering Vermont law requiring labels on foods containing GMO ingredients went into effect in 2016. (The federal government implemented a nationwide labeling policy later that same year, which could take effect by 2020.)

But a new study out on Wednesday from The University of Vermont has found that GMO disclosure labels might not scare consumers as much as was originally feared. In fact, the labels might actually improve their attitudes.

Before we get to those findings, however, let’s look into the origins of this fierce debate over labeling on foods that scientists have mostly agreed is safe to eat.

“Mandatory labels providing simple disclosures lead to reductions in opposition.”
While concerns about the proliferation of GMO technology range from environmental impact to health issues, research has shown that the general public’s understanding can be quite limited. But whether or not the average eater has a firm enough grasp on the science to make an educated argument in favor of or against GMOs, plenty of people are concerned about the corporate ethics and transparency that surround them. When a GMO labeling law was first introduced in California in 2012, a group of multinational food companies, from Monsanto to Pepsi, spent millions to crush it. That locked consumer advocates and corporations in an us-versus-them battle, with each side sticking to a party line. On one side: We have the right to know. On the other: You have a right to know if there’s a safety issue, and there isn’t.

Now, about those findings. Jane Kolodinsky, an applied economist at the University of Vermont and one of the study’s lead authors, is the first to probe whether consumer perceptions have changed since Vermont’s label mandate became official. She analyzed the responses of consumers who were asked to rank their attitudes about the use of GMOs in food on a scale of one (“strongly support”) to five (“strongly oppose”) between 2014 and 2017. She then compared those results to a national consumer survey, led by Purdue University economist Jayson Lusk, that asked similar questions. All told, 7,800 people were surveyed.

In Vermont, Kolodinsky found, opposition to GMO food fell significantly after the labeling law went into effect—by 19 percent. In the rest of the country, where the federal labeling law was not yet in effect, opposition continued to rise.

GMO labels are similar to mandatory of labeling of foods that were previously frozen, made from concentrate, or pasteurized.
“Mandatory labels providing simple disclosures lead to reductions in opposition,” the study authors write, and are “not likely to signal to consumers that GE [genetic engineered] foods are more risky, unsafe, or otherwise harmful than prior to label exposure, and might, in fact, do the opposite.” In short, where there was real-world exposure to GMO labels, attitudes shifted.

It’s important to note that labels don’t attempt to explain the science behind GMO ingredients. In Vermont, the labels merely alerted consumers to their presence.

In that way, GMO disclosure labels are similar to the mandatory labels that appear on foods that were previously frozen, made from concentrate, pasteurized, or irradiated. In the case of irradiation, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated labeling in the 1980s, it was not because the process was unsafe, but because consumers demanded it, an advocate told The Atlantic.

Kolodinsky has studied attitudes toward GMO foods since 2003. She told The New Food Economy that consumers already have their minds made up when it comes to how they feel about the technology.

“There’s a whole variety of reasons,” she said, why a consumer might not like GMO foods. “‘I would like to support small-scale agriculture,’ for example, or ‘I would like to support the organic industry,’ or, ‘somewhere in my background, I feel that there are issues with where equity is in the food system.’”

When shoppers go to grocery stores, she says, those opinions don’t change. But labels help them implement choices motivated by those opinions.

Consumers began to feel like companies using GMOs weren’t hiding anything.
“In the marketplace, labeling just gives [shoppers] the opportunity to be autonomous, and to feel like it is their decision,” Kolodinsky said. “Without labels, they are unable to make that decision. Somebody else is deciding for them.”

Though this most recent study didn’t take motives into account—it merely compared attitudes among Vermonters before and after the law went into effect—Kolodinsky has ideas about why GMO opposition might have softened. And it comes down to trustworthiness.

“Did it increase people’s confidence in the foods, because, ‘why would the government label something that was unsafe?’ Did it make people feel better because, ‘oh, now I have the ability to make a choice that maximizes my satisfaction?’” she asked.

The answer is likely somewhere in between. But the study results may provide some indication that consumer opposition to GMO foods has less to do with the technology itself, and more to do with our desire to know when it’s been used.

Federal legislation, meanwhile, which superseded and ended the Vermont labeling law, is finally moving forward, as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalizes a labeling scheme for these foods. As Patrick Clinton wrote last month, instead of deciding to label foods “genetically modified,” or “containing genetically modified organisms,” or “genetically engineered,” as Vermont did, USDA is opting for the newer—and narrower term—”bioengineered” (BE).

Why that term? Perhaps because GMO was the kiss of death for some consumers. But the findings in this study undermine that assumption. Maybe companies like General Mills and Campbell’s, which were already voluntarily labeling their foods with GMO disclosures, were right all along. For some consumers, the more information they have, the better they feel.

The study is now available in the journal Science Advances.

Sam Bloch

Sam Bloch has written about arts, culture, and real estate for publications including L.A. Weekly, Artnet and Commercial Observer, and served as managing editor of Art Los Angeles Reader. His essay about Los Angeles' "shade deserts" will be published by Places Journal in 2018. Reach him by email at: samuel.bloch@newfoodeconomy.org

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