June 3, 2002
Survey: Americans trust the science behind bioengineered foods
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. The ongoing debate over the safety and environmental impact of genetically modified foods is complex and multifaceted, but new research shows that American consumers are able to separate the wheat from the chaff when presented with science-based information.
Charles Santerre, an associate professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University, surveyed 576 people to see how their knowledge and attitudes toward genetically enhanced foods changed after receiving an hour of training on food biotechnology. His results, which will be published in the June issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, showed that a positive, science-based message can be efficiently delivered in a way the public understands.
"Consumer education is an important aspect in the adoption of any new technology, and especially so when it comes to safe, economical food production," Santerre said. "Without a fundamental understanding of the science behind food biotechnology, it's very difficult for consumers to discern between credible and false information."
The study participants were asked a series of questions about their knowledge of, and attitude toward, genetically modified foods both before and after attending an hour-long educational presentation on the subject. The training included information on how bioengineered crops are created, the environmental impact of growing them, the criteria used by federal agencies to evaluate and approve them, which genetically enhanced foods are currently sold in grocery stores, the safety of these foods for consumers and the potential benefits to be gained as the technology advances.
Santerre found that prior to the training, 31 percent of the participants believed that genetically enhanced crops were properly regulated by federal agencies, and 25 percent were confident that bioengineering was unlikely to make existing food allergenic. But following training, 83 percent said these crops were properly regulated and 63 percent believed that biotechnology was unlikely to add new allergens to the food supply.
"We also found that 90 percent of those who received the training would eat and serve genetically modified foods to their families, and 90 percent believed that their families would benefit from genetically modified foods within the next five years," Santerre said. "This confirmed my belief that consumers can understand complex issues when the concepts are properly developed and delivered."
Europeans' attitudes toward genetically modified crops are much more volatile than that of their American counterparts, he said, and suggests that part of the reason for the disparity could be the sources of information.
"Americans, by and large, have much more trust and confidence in their medical professionals and federal government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to provide them with accurate, science-based information on this technology," Santerre said. "Consumers in Europe do not have that same level of trust or confidence and are more likely to listen to Greenpeace and other environmental groups that often present a very narrow view of the technology that supports a specific agenda.
"All consumers need accurate information on a wide range of issues in order to properly interpret the latest headline they read in the newspaper."
Santerre's research was funded by the USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service and an unrestricted grant to the university from Monsanto Inc.
Writer: Sharon A. Bowker, (765) 494-9723, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Charles Santerre, (765) 496-3443, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; firstname.lastname@example.org