GENET archive


3-Food: Americans are split on GE food but growing somewhat more skeptical, study finds

                                 PART I
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Risk or benefit: American opinions are split on genetically
        engineered food, but they are growing slightly more skeptical,
        study finds
SOURCE: Cornell University, USA
DATE:   19 Feb 2006

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Risk or benefit: American opinions are split on genetically engineered
food, but they are growing slightly more skeptical, study finds

ST. LOUIS -- While more than two-thirds of the food in U.S. markets
contains at least some amount of a genetically engineered (GE) crop,
researchers want to know if Americans consider GE food a health risk or

The result: Americans are split on the issue, but they have become
slightly more skeptical over the past three years, according to a new
study from Cornell University.

"Depending on whom you ask, the technology is either beneficial or has
negative effects on health and environment," said James Shanahan,
associate professor of communication at Cornell and lead researcher of
the study.

Generally, women and non-Caucasians perceived higher risk in using
biotechnology in food production than men and Caucasians. And
politically, Republicans showed more overall support for GE foods than
others, he said.

John Besley, one of Shanahan's collaborators and a Cornell doctoral
candidate in communication, presented the findings at the annual meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science today (Feb.
19). The third co-author is Erik Nisbet, also a Cornell doctoral
candidate in communication.

The study included four annual national surveys from 2003 to 2005 (with
samples of about 750 respondents each year) and three annual surveys of
New Yorkers from 2003 to 2005 (about 850 respondents each year). The
national survey measured support for GE food using a scale from 1 to 10,
while the New York survey used a similar scale to measure the perceived
health risks of GE food.

"The results of the state and national surveys were very consistent with
each other," said Shanahan. "And both showed a slight but significant
shift over time toward a little less support and more risk perception."

Specifically, the mean response for support for biotechnology was 5.6 (on
a 1-10 scale) in the first year of the surveys, indicating that people
were evenly divided in supporting, opposing or being undecided; by 2005,
the mean declined slightly to 5.2. Similarly, the mean response for risk
perception increased to 6.1 in 2005 from 5.4 in the first year.

The researchers also found that people who pay more attention to the news
tend to support GE food more than those who don't.

"Overall, research shows that GE foods are safe and effective, though
some people still harbor reservations about it," said Shanahan. "I
suspect that the more people are exposed to the news, the more aware they
are of biotechnology and, therefore, more supportive of it."

The New York data were collected by Cornell's Survey Research Institute
(SRI), which conducts survey research on par with other academic research
facilities. The national data were collected during a research methods
course in cooperation with SRI.

Shanahan serves as the co-director of the public issues education
project, Genetically Engineered Organisms. The project has an extensive
Web site for consumers about GE crops and foods (http://www.geo-, including information on what foods are most frequently
engineered (corn and soybeans, followed by canola and cotton, from which
cottonseed oil is derived), which traits have been engineered,
regulations, and media coverage and opinions about GE foods.

Contact: Blaine Friedlander
Office: (607) 254-8093

                                 PART II
------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Our Engineered Food Supply
SOURCE: Seed Magazine, USA, by Britt Peterson
DATE:   03 Mar 2006

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Our Engineered Food Supply
A study takes the nation's pulse on genetically engineered foods.

Republicans, men, white people, avid news-watchers...No, we're not
talking about Bill O'Reilly's fan base. Actually, these demographic
groups share a particular tolerance of genetically engineered (GE) foods,
according to a Cornell University study on American attitudes towards

The study, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of
Science last week in St. Louis, MO, also shows that Americans in general
are split on the merits of GE foods, though support has waned slightly in
the past three years.

"I hypothesize that lack of media attention in recent years is causing
people to use considerations off the top of their head," said James
Shanahan, professor of communications at Cornell and the study's lead
author. "Mixing terms such as 'technology' and 'food' is inherently
something some people feel queasy about."

Researchers surveyed a nationwide sample of the population between 2002
and 2005, asking subjects demographic data, such as gender, race,
political affiliation, religious beliefs and attention paid to the news
as well as their opinions on GE foods.

Support declined by a small but statistically significant amount across
the board in the three years of the study. While religion didn't seem to
have any effect on attitude toward bioengineering, women, non-whites and
Democrats were typically more skeptical of GE foods than their male,
white, Republican counterparts.

"Women tend to see more risk across the board on a variety of issues, so
we were not surprised by that finding," Shanahan said, adding that the
same is generally true for non-white Americans. "Republicans are more
comfortable with 'industry' and corporations in general, so I think that
is the driving issue there."

Sidney Mintz, an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins who studies cultural
conceptions of food, questions the results of the Cornell study. He
believes subjects were probably poorly informed about bioengineering and
were unable to respond in a way that reflects their everyday choices.
Instead, he said, they probably relied on abstract ideas of where they
fit on a political spectrum.

"I think a large majority of Americans don't really know what GE foods
are, and most of them are in fact indifferent," Mintz said via e-mail.
"If the subjects were told the issues, then yes, they'd no doubt break
down along the lines the researchers found. But I don't know whether that
would have much to do with what either group actually bought or ate--
except for a really exiguous minority."

William Hallman, a director at the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers and
the author of an earlier study on perceptions of GE food, agreed that
Americans are unaware of bioengineering.

"It may not matter that opinions measured on a survey shift slightly over
time in either a positive or negative direction if the public doesn't
connect those opinions with their behaviors as consumers," he said via e-mail.

John Besley, a Cornell graduate student and coauthor of the current
study, said that he and his colleagues are hoping to more closely examine
the social forces at work behind their findings.

"A lot more research needs to be done to figure out what the messages
people are receiving, and how people are thinking about biotech now, as
opposed to the last few years."

European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
news & information

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