Do People Really Want to Express an Opinion on GMO Labeling?

With Gwyneth Paltrow making her way to Washington to make the case for mandatory GMO labeling, and with competing bills circulating through the US Congress (one of which was passed by the House), I'm hearing a lot about GMO labeling these days.  

I wanted to draw your attention to an aspect of this debate that you probably don't hear a lot about.  Let's start with this quote from an interview in the Verge with William Hallman of Rutgers who has done lots of polling on GMOs over the years: 

A number of surveys show that consumers overwhelmingly support GMO labeling, but Hallman says there’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Most polls don’t give the option of saying “I don’t know” when asked about support for labeling, and few consumers will say they don’t want more information. In fact, Hallman’s own survey shows most Americans aren’t even part of the conversation

I largely agree with Hallman's statement.  Yes, if you ask people whether they want GMO labeling, a large majority will say "yes."  But that sentiment is not very deep (I've found similar levels of support for absurd policies like DNA labeling; moreover, the policy has failed to garner majority support now in 5 state ballot initiatives where people actually had to vote).  

More broadly, asking people whether they want mandatory GMO labeling misses a larger question: how seriously do consumers take their own views?  Do they even want to have to express an opinion on the issue?  

Back in May, I polled a representative sample of over 1,000 US consumers.  I asked them:  “How should the issue of mandatory labeling of genetically engineered food be decided?”  They could choose from one of six options.  

The majority, 61%, of the respondents stated “by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)”.  Just over 10% of respondents stated “I don’t know” and only 5% of respondents stated “by ballot initiatives in each state”.

So, despite the fact that ~80% of people will say they want mandatory GMO labeling in a poll, the above results suggest that they also don't want themselves or fellow citizens to directly decide that policy (9.1% want a nationwide ballot initiative and 5.3% want a statewide vote).  Interestingly, only 8.8% want Congress to decide.

My interpretation of this result is that, if forced to state an opinion, most consumers will express positive support for labels (absent any information on costs or consequences).  But, consumers also realize that they are not terribly knowledgeable on the issue and would defer to "experts" like those at FDA.  

In fact, back in July of 2014, I directly asked over 1,000 US consumers whether they thought decisions about labeling of GMOs should be based on views of experts or views of average Americans.  Over 70% said decisions should be based on views of experts.  

Maybe that seems a bit elitist.  But, I'm not sure that's the right word.  These aren't experts saying experts should decide.  These are normal, everyday people saying they want experts to decide.  This is an entirely reasonable position.  Many of us could do our own taxes or make our own retirement planning decisions, but instead we farm these decisions out to experts because it simply isn't worth our time to become experts in everything.