Not only is it the case that people are likely to differ in their opinions about the desirability of mandatory GMO labeling or soda taxes, but they are also likely to differ in how they think such issues should be decided.
A while back, I ran across this paper by Gaskell and colleagues published in Science. They sought to categorized citizens in terms of their attitudes about how technology should be governed by asking two questions relating to whether decisions about technology should be made by 1) experts vs. average Americans and 2) moral and ethical issues vs. scientific evidence on benefits/costs.
In the latest edition of the Food Demand Survey (FooDS), I applied these questions to five food policy issues. Unlike Gaskell's work I also allowed respondents to have different answers for different issues.
The first question asked: “Decisions about food policy should be based mainly on the views and advice of experts OR decisions about food policy should be based mainly on the views of the average American.” The second question asked: “Decisions about food policy should be based mainly on the moral and ethical issues involved OR decisions about food policy should be based mainly on the scientific evidence of risk and benefit.” Then five food policy issues were listed in random order: labeling of genetically modified food, use of growth hormones, legality of selling raw, unpasteurized milk, use of the term "natural" on packaging, and the tax charged on sugar sodas.
Here's what we found.
More than 70% of respondents wanted policy decisions related to GMO labeling and use of growth hormones to be based on expert advice rather than the views of the average American. I find that result rather striking in light of the fact that opinion polls show large numbers of people saying they want GMO labeling. Here, we see that a large majority thinks this sort of issue should NOT be decided by the views of the average American. That would seem to imply that folks do not think GMO labeling should be settled by ballot initiative.
In stark contrast to the other food policy issues, almost 70% wanted decisions about soda taxes to be based on the views of the average American rather than the "elites".
Recall that we also asked about whether decisions should be based on morals and ethics or based on scientific evidence on risk and benefit.
For three issues, milk pasteurization, hormones, and GMO labeling, the majority thought decisions should be based on science. There was a split on natural labeling. For soda taxes, the majority thought moral issues should be the deciding factor.
As with the prior research, we used the answers to categorized people into one of four categories for each of the five food policy issues. “Scientific elitists” wanted policy decisions made by experts on the basis of scientific evidence, “moral elitists” wanted policy decisions based made by experts on the basis of moral issues, “scientific populists” wanted the average American to make decisions on the basis of scientific evidence, and “moral populists” wanted the average American to make decisions on the basis of moral issues.
A plurality of respondents were "scientific elitists" for GMO labeling, use of growth hormones, and legality of selling raw milk. The same was true for use of the term "natural" on labeling, but there was a larger share of "moral elitists" in regard to this issue than for others. Finally, for soda taxes, "moral populists" described the largest share of respondents.
A natural question is whether these categories explain people's attitudes about the food policies. Gaskell et al. showed that "scientific elitists" in regard to general technology were the majority citizen type in their surveys and this type had more favorable attitudes toward biotechnology and nanotechnology than other consumer types - particularly moral populists.
I find something similar here as well. Take for example, the 4-category breakdown on GMO labeling. I find that "scientific elitists" on GMO labeling express the lowest level of concern about eating GMOs (an average score of 3.06 on a 1 to 5 scale of concern), whereas "moral elitists" and "scientific populists" had scores of 3.41 and 3.43. Moral populists averaged 3.34. There also seems to be a political dimension to people's views about how these food policy issues should be decided. For example, scientific elitists and scientific populists were slightly more conservative (about 3.05 on a 1 to 5 scale of liberal to conservative) than were those who focus more on moral/ethical issues (score of about 2.9 on the scale). Those identifying with the Democratic party were more heavily represented in the "moral elitist" category than they were in other categories.