Yesterday the Journal of the Federation for American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) published a paper I co-authored with Brandon McFadden from the University of Florida. We surveyed a representative sample of over 1,000 US consumers and probed the depth of their knowledge about GMOs.
We asked questions about the number of genes affected by different plant breeding techniques, prevalence of use of GMOs for different crops and foods, true/false questions about genetics and GMOs, knowledge of the length of time biotech crops have been grown, regulatory approval times for GMOs, views on public policies directed toward GMOs. Before and after asking these questions, we asked respondents to rate their self-assessed knowledge of GMOs and to indicate their belief that GMOS are unsafe or safe to eat.
The overall finding is 1) consumers, as a group, are unknowledgeable about GMOs, genetics, and plant breeding and, perhaps more interestingly, 2) simply asking these objective knowledge questions served to lower subjective, self-assessed knowledge of GMOs (i.e., people realize they didn't know as much as they thought they did) and increase the belief that it is safe to eat GM food.
The implications are two fold: 1) using consumer opinions about GMOs to guide public policy is problematic given the low levels of knowledge, and 2) using something like the Socratic Method may as effective at changing safety beliefs than simply providing information.