How Votes on GMO Labeling Change Concern for GMOs

At the annual meetings of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association last week in Chicago, I saw an interesting presentation by Jane Kolodinsky from the University of Vermont.  She utilized some survey data collected in Vermont before and after mandatory labels on GMOs appeared on products in that state to determine whether consumers seeing GMO labels on the shelf led to greater or lower support for GMOs as measured by her surveys.  

I'm not sure if she's ready to make those results public yet, so I won't discuss her findings here (I will note I'm now working with her now to combine some of my survey data with hers to see whether the findings hold up in a larger sample).

Nonetheless, her presentation led me think about some of the survey data I collected over the years as a part of the Food Demand Survey (FooDS) project.  While I don't have enough data from consumers in Vermont to ask the same question Jane did, I do have quite a bit of data from the larger states of Oregon and Colorado, which held public votes on mandatory labeling for GMOs back in December 2014.  

In particular, I can ask the question: did the publicity surrounding the vote initiative on mandatory GMO labeling cause people to become more or less concerned about GMOs in general?

We have some strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that support for GMO labeling fell pretty dramatically in the months leading up to the vote.  For example, here are the results from several polls in California (including one data point my research with Brandon McFadden generated) on support/opposition to mandatory GMO labeling.  The figure below shows support for the policy was high but fell precipitously as the election campaigning began, and as we all know by now, the policy ultimately failed to garner majority support in California.

There is a similar pattern of support for mandatory GMO labeling in other states where the voter initiatives were held.  However, just because public support for a mandatory labeling policy fell as a result of campaign ads, this doesn't necessarily mean people thought GMOs were safer or more acceptable per se.  Indeed, many of the negative campaign ads focused on possible "paydays for lawyers" or inconsistencies in the ways the laws would be implemented, rather than focusing on the underlying technology itself.  

The Food Demand Survey has been conducted nationwide and monthly since May of 2013.  In November of 2014, two states - Colorado and Oregon - held widely publicized votes on mandatory GMO labeling.  These data can be used to calculate a difference-in-difference estimate of the effect of mandatory GMO labeling vote on awareness of GMOs in the news and concern about GMOs as a food safety risk.

The survey asks all respondents, every month, two questions of relevance here.  First, “Overall, how much have you heard or read about each of the following topics in the past two weeks” with response categories: 1=nothing; 2=a little; 3=a moderate amount; 4=quite a bit; 5=a great deal.  Second, we also ask, “How concerned are you that the following pose a health hazard in the food that you eat in the next two weeks” with response categories: 1=very unconcerned; 2= somewhat unconcerned; 3=neither concerned nor unconcerned; 4=somewhat concerned; 5=very concerned.  One of the 16 issues we ask about is "genetically modified food."

These data allow us to calculate a so-called difference-in-difference estimate.  That is - were people in CA and OR more concerned about GMOs than people in the rest of the country (this is the first difference) and how did this gap change during and after all the publicity surrounding the vote (this is the second and third difference)?  The "treated" group are the people in CA and OR while the "control" group consists of people in all other US states.

To analyze these question, I split the data into three time periods - "before" the vote (the months prior to September 2014), during the vote (Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec of 2014 and Jan of 2015) and after the vote (all the months after January 2015).  There were 485 "treated" people in CO and OR before the vote, 172 in these locations during, and 908 in these locations after (out of a total sample size of almost 49,000). 

In terms of awareness, here's what I found. 

Compared to people other parts of the U.S., people in CO and OR indeed reported hearing more about GMOs in the news during the ballot initiative vote than they did before and after (the increase in news awareness during the months surround the vote was statistically significant at the 0.01 level).

But, here's the key question.  Did the vote increase or decrease concern about GMOs as a food safety risk?  Apparently there was no effect.  The graph below shows, as compared to people in other states where there were no votes, there was actually a small increase in concern for GMOs in CO and OR in the months during the vote (however, the increase was not statistically significant, p=0.36), which then fell back down to pre-vote levels after the vote.  

So, despite evidence that the vote initiative on mandatory labeling led to an increase in awareness of GMOs in the news, it did not substantively affect concern about GMOs one way or the other.