Pew Survey on Consumers, GMOs, and Trust in Science

About a week ago, the PewResearchCenter released a new report (report summary here) on GMOs, organic, and trust in food science.  The report has already been covered quite a bit in the media, but I thought I'd share a few observations on the study's headline results.  

First, the study finds:

Four-in-ten Americans (40%) say that most (6%) or some (34%) of the foods they eat are organic.

It's hard to know what to make of this claim as "some" is a pretty loose category.  One important point to keep in mind here is that USDA data reveal that, except for a few exceptions like lettuce or carrots, for most foods the percent of production that is is organic is typically far less than 5%. 

The study also finds:

The minority of U.S. adults who care deeply about the issue of GM foods (16%) . . . are also much more likely to consider organic produce healthier

The finding is consistent with prior research showing that WTP for organic is heavily influenced by the desire to avoid pesticides and GMOs.  In fact, there was a lot of attention given to the organic industry's support of the new mandatory labeling law for GMOs, which allowed disclosure via relatively innocuous QR codes.  The organic industry has worked to make sure people know non-GMO is not synonymous organic.  In other words, these two attributes (organic and non-GMO) are likely demand substitutes for consumers, and the organic industry knows this.  

One of the highlighted conclusions from the study is:

The divides over food do not fall along familiar political fault lines.

I'm not so sure.  While I agree things like concern for GMOs or preferences for organic don't have strong correlations with political ideology, the same can't be said for people's desires to regulate GMOs (say via labels or bans) or subsidize organics .  See, for example, this paper entitled "The political ideology of food" I published in Food Policy in 2012. From the abstract:

Food ideology was related to conventional measures of political ideology with, for example, more liberal respondents desiring more government involvement in food than more conservative respondents . . .

As I've written about in the past, I think it is important to separate "food preferences" from "policy preference", and on this last issue, there are big partisan and ideological divides.   

Much of the news coverage I saw about the report focused on the results related to American's trust in scientists and GMOs.  The study reports

Americans have limited trust in scientists connected with genetically modified foods.

 The study also reveals only about half the respondents think scientists think GMOs are safe to eat.  Well, Pew's other research shows us that it is more like 88%.  Thus, people under-estimate scientists beliefs about the safety of GMOs.  One might think then, that the answer is to just tell people about the scientific consensus regarding GMOs.  However, my research with Brandon McFadden suggests this probably won't have much affect.  In our study, the biggest determinant of how an individual responded to information about the science on GMOs was their prior belief about the safety of GMOs.  In fact, about a third of the people who thought GMOs were unsafe prior to information said they thought GMOs were even more unsafe after receiving statements from the National Academies of Science, the American Medical Association, etc. indicating GMOs were safe (we called these folk "divergent"); the plurality of people who thought GMOs were unsafe just ignored the scientific information indicating GMOs were safe.  This behavior is a form of motivated reasoning that Dan Kahan has discussed extensively in his work on cultural cognition.  We look for the information that supports our prior beliefs and ignore or discount the rest.  

On this issue of trust in scientists and GMO foods: it is important to note that trust in virtually ALL institutions is down over time.  Gallup has been tracking trust in about a dozen institutions since the 1970s.  Aside from a few exceptions (like the military and police), trust is way down for most institutions.  For example over 65% of people had a great deal or a lot of trust in "church or organized religion" in the 1970s, whereas today the figure is 41%.  For "public schools", confidence was running about 60% in the mid 1970s, but today is only 30%.  Newspapers went from around 40% to now around 20%.  "Big business" from around 30% to now around 18%.   "The medical system" from 80% to 39%.  Similar trends exist for congress, the presidency, organized labor, banks, and so on.   

As a result, it is important to ask how much trust is there in scientists . . . compared to what?  I haven't asked this question specifically in regard to GMOs in particular or food science in general, but a while back I asked on my monthly Food Demand Survey (FooDS):  “How trustworthy is information about meat and livestock from the following sources?” Fifteen sources were listed (the order randomly varied across respondents), and respondents had to place five sources in the most trustworthy category and five sources in the least trustworthy category. A scale of importance was created by calculating the proportion of times a meat and livestock information source as ranked most trustworthy minus the proportion of times it was ranked least trustworthy.

We found:

The USDA and FDA were reported as most trustworthy with 50% more people indicating the source as most trustworthy than least. A University professor from Harvard were seen as slightly more trustworthy than one from Texas A&M, but both were viewed as less trustworthy than interest groups like the Farm Bureau, the CSPI, or the HSUS.

News organizations, and particularly food companies, were viewed as least trustworthy. Chipotle was the seen as the least trust worthy organization studied – the restaurant chain was placed in the least trustworthy category 69% more often than in the most trustworthy category.

While individuals scientists at either Harvard or Texas A&M were less trusted than some others perhaps it was because it was phrased a single professor rather than a group of professors.  Indeed, the four top groups are all collections of scientists (among other people).  A subsequent survey asked how much people knew about each of these individuals and institutions, and while CSPI is trusted, it isn't well known.  I suspect people were responding to the word "science".  So, I think there is good reason to suspect people trust scientists as much or more than other societal institutions.

The issue of trust and acceptance of GMOs has been researched quite heavily in the academic literature (e.g., see several studies by Lynn Frewer).  In this paper,  she and coauthors show that people's response to information on GMOs doesn't depend on how much they trust the source per se, but rather it's the other way round: people trust the sources giving them the information that fits with their prior beliefs.  So, again we're back to motivated reasoning.  Still, we should acknowledge some research that shows "information matters."  I've done work on this topic, as has Matt Rousu, Wally Huffman and Jason Shogren.  This last set of researchers show, for example, that relatively uninformed people are influenced by information by interested and third party sources.

There is a lot more in the Pew report, but I think I'll leave it here for now.