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 benefit.
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-pie.cornell.edu), 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.