- Those who are the most opposed to genetically modified organisms tend to know the least about them —although they believe they know more than others — according to recent research. The study was published Jan. 14 in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
- Researchers from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Toronto and the University of Pennsylvania surveyed more than 2,000 adults in the U.S. and Europe on their attitudes about GMO foods. Respondents were asked about their understanding of GMOs and given a series of true-or-false questions to test their knowledge of science and genetics.
- Results showed the more strongly respondents said they opposed GMO foods, the more knowledgeable they thought they were about the issue — but the lower their scores were on the knowledge test. "This result is perverse, but is consistent with previous research on the psychology of extremism," Philip M. Fernbach, lead author and a marketing professor at the University of Colorado, said in a release.
Given the relatively large number of people surveyed in the most recent research, these results might be more reliable than others with fewer respondents or those conducted by pro-GMO organizations. An online survey last year of 1,213 U.S. adults done by GMO Answers found that 69% weren't confident of their GMO knowledge and about one-third said they were comfortable having GMOs in their food. However, another study this past year from the Hartman Group showed nearly half of consumers would avoid buying products containing GMOs, while a third don't want to support companies using them.
It's not clear why people who seem to hold the most extreme views about GMOs appear to know the least about them. However, ignorance is not bliss where scientific matters are concerned. The study's authors noted that it could be difficult to make a change in these consumers' attitudes. The consumers who know the least are less likely to seek out, or be open to, new information.
Three of the researchers had previously studied consumer attitudes about GMO foods and published the results this past summer. That study found people remain skeptical and "grossed out" by genetically modified food because they see GMOs as violating naturalness. This time around, those researchers joined forces with another research team that was looking into the same topic.
According to Sydney Scott, assistant professor of marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, the purpose is to acquire an overview of where consumers currently are in their thinking when it comes to GMOs. "It’s looking at the state of what’s been done in the regulatory landscape and the research in understanding attitudes," she said in a previous release.
The researchers asked similar questions about two other complex science issues that may be polarizing: gene therapy and climate change. They got similar responses on gene therapy, but not climate change. They suggested debate on that issue might be so politically charged that respondents' attitudes relied more on group affiliation than on individual knowledge.
Food companies might be able to use these study results to help educate consumers about products containing GMOs. Misunderstandings and conflicting reports continue to divide consumer attitudes, and information on the issue often comes from strongly anti-GMO consumer groups or organizations with financial or other ties to the biotechnology industry. As a result, it can be tough for the average consumer to know whom to trust without access to more objective sources of information. And, when required GMO labeling goes into effect next January, the issue could be confused even more.