82% Want Food Labeled if It Contains GMOs. 80% Want Food Labeled If It Contains DNA!

Public opinion surveys are often cited as evidence of how people feel. What they really demonstrate is how human cognition is more a matter of emotion than reason.

82% Want Food Labeled if It Contains GMOs. 80% Want Food Labeled If It Contains DNA!

In the summer of 2013, the New York Times reported that a whopping 93% of people wanted food labeled if it contained genetically modified ingredients (GMOs). Those campaigning for such labeling trumpeted this whopping number as evidence that people are worried about hybrid crops created with agricultural biotechnology.

A new survey reports similar support for GMO labeling. Only this survey teaches us something else, which is not to read too much into what public opinion surveys tell us about how concerned people might be about GMOs.

The new poll was done by Professor Jason Lusk of Oklahoma State University as part of his ongoing monthly Food Demand survey. It asks some basic questions about food, and each month tacks on a few extra questions. This time Lusk asked a representative sample of Americans “How much do you support or oppose mandatory labels on foods produced with genetic engineering?” 82% favored such labels. Pretty strong, right? But Lusk has been doing this long enough to know how little a few quick questions really reveal about public concern regarding GMOs. And to be sure the rest of us got that message, he also asked “How much do you support/oppose government mandated labels of food containing DNA?”

You might want to sit down before reading the answer, because you may fall down when you do. 80% of Americans are in favor of such labels. 8 Americans in ten support government requirements for labels informing consumers that their food contains the naturally occurring chemicals that are basic chemical building blocks of life. It’s like asking if you want labels on your food telling you it contains…well…food.

This results tells us a few things. Yes, it says that the respondents weren’t particularly science literate. It also confirms the obvious, that people want choice; if there’s something, anything, in our food, we want to know about it (86% also favored labels identifying the country of origin for meat products.). And it warns us to be wary of what quicky public opinion surveys tell us regarding how people feel about genetically modified food.

More in-depth surveys on public attitudes about GMOs find the same thing. Professor Bill Hallman of Rutgers surveyed Americans in 2013. Before mentioning the topic of GMOs, he started with the neutral question “What information would you like on food labels that is not already in there?” Just seven percent wanted labels noting the presence of genetically modified ingredients. Later in the survey, he asked people several questions to see what they knew about GMOs, which wasn’t much. Half said they knew ‘very little or nothing’ about genetically modified food. A quarter said they’d never heard of it. Then, after raising the topic, Hallman asked if they wanted mandatory labeling of food that contains GMO ingredients. This time 73% said yes. Labels? CHOICE? You BET! Who doesn’t want that!?

Those in the trenches of the GMO labeling fight will undoubtedly use Lusk’s research to suit their goals. GMO opponents will cite it to support their push for labeling, which they claim is about giving consumers choice but is really about trying to scare consumers away from a technology they oppose. Food retailers – the firms that actually have to label their products and fear lost revenues, as opposed to the biotech companies and farmers and big food processors (who actually support federal labeling guidelines) – will cite it to show that support for labeling is a mile wide and less than an inch deep.

The point here is to note two things. First, people want choice, and the research on risk perception psychology says that when we have it, any associated risk worries us less. That’s an argument I and others have made in favor of labeling, to get this distracting battle out of the way so society can make more fact-based choices about whether and how to tap the potential agricultural biotechnology has to offer.

Second, and more profoundly, the Lusk survey illustrates an important truth about human cognition that we are only just beginning to realize and begrudgingly accept. We are not the careful rational thinkers we like to think we are. People’s views are based far more on how they feel than on the facts alone. Human cognition is affective, a mix of facts and feelings, not the objective rational process we pretend it is.

The survey doesn’t show, as some pundits are derisively claiming, that people are ignorant. It just shows that whenever we’re asked to make a choice or judgment about something, we use powerful subconscious instincts and emotions to assess the meaning of the information we have (which usually isn’t very much) and come up with our decision. It’s pointless to judge this as smart or dumb, good nor bad, rational or irrational. It’s just the way it is. But it sure isn’t the smartest way to make the most informed and intelligent policy choices that will do society the most good, about GMO labeling or any other issue.

A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Astrophysicists: Gamma-ray jets exceed the speed of light

Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.

An artist's drawing of a particle jet emanating from a black hole at the center of a blazar.

Credit: DESY, Science Communication Lab (used with permission by Astronomy Picture of the Day, which is co-managed by Robert Nemiroff at Michigan Tech).
Surprising Science
  • Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
  • The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
  • The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Keep reading Show less

Is free will an illusion?

Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.

Sponsored by John Templeton Foundation
  • The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
  • According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
  • "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."

The Arecibo telescope has collapsed: A look at its 57-year history

Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.

The Arecibo radio telescope

Credit: dennisvdwater via Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
  • Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
  • The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…