Public Perception of GE Crops Not Rooted in Reality

2/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Miles Jackson N.J. Correspondent

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Data on public perceptions of genetically engineered, or GE, crops and food products indicates a disconnect between the reality and what people think, according to William Hallman, professor of human ecology at Rutgers University and director of Rutgers’ Food Policy Institute.

Speaking at a workshop on GE crops at the agricultural convention in Atlantic City this week, Hallman said much of the nonfarming public has little information about food made from GE crops.

“But having little information hasn’t stopped most people from forming an opinion,” said Hallman, a trained psychologist who studies public perception of risk at Rutgers University.

Data collected by the Food Policy Institute indicate that almost half of those surveyed know little or nothing about GE crops, about the same number as those who are not familiar with conventional plant breeding techniques.

Yet only 17 percent profess to have “too little information” to form an opinion on GE crops and food products containing GE crop ingredients, such as oil, corn sweetener and sugar, Hallman said.

“The two numbers should be the same,” he said. “If half the people know only a little or nothing at all about GE crops, how can only 17 percent have too little information to form an opinion?”

Hallman said much of a study’s responses depend “on how the question is asked.”

“When you use the term biotechnology’ to describe crops produced by genetic engineering, the response is more favorable than when you use the term genetically engineered,’ ” he said.

Surveys also show that there are public misconceptions about which food crops are grown using GE methods. Many people said they believe that fruits and vegetables are genetically engineered when only one variety of squash is currently grown in the United States using such methods, he said.

More of the surveyed public said they believed that meat and eggs were grown with GE methods than those who said soybean and cereal crops were grown using such methods, Hallman said.

In fact, there are currently no animals or animal products for human consumption produced by genetic engineering, he said. But more than half of foodstuffs contain corn or soybean ingredients — such as soy protein, corn sweeteners and food oils — that are grown through genetic engineering.

Only the “organic” label means that there are no GE crop products in the food product so labeled, he said.

Public opinion on GE crops “isn’t crystallized, isn’t well thought out and is not strongly held,” Hallman said. “But these opinions are still important. We should not ignore them.”

Education on the benefits and potential pitfalls of GE crops should be an ongoing effort by the agricultural community, Hallman said.

“We need to give the public the information to make fact-based opinions,” he said.

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