Surprise! Shoppers Are Confused About Food And GMOs

October 31, 2017

Two new surveys come to the same conclusion.

Originally published on

Two new surveys come to the same conclusion: The average American shopper is clueless when it comes to having an understanding of what is a genetically modified organism (GMO).

A new nationally representative Food Literacy and Engagement Poll which is part of Food@MSU, a new initiative based in Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources finds more than one-third of Americans do not know that foods with no genetically modified ingredients contain genes. Forty-six percent of poll respondents either don’t know whether they consume GMOs or believe they rarely or never do. The other major surprise in the survey is that most of the people who stated this incorrect answer were young and affluent, and described themselves as having a higher-than-average understanding of the global food system.

Boy, are we in trouble.

Another study that was conducted by the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Purdue University and was just published in the journal Applied Economics: Perspectives and Policy was designed to examine just how much shoppers might pay for non-GMO foods. The researchers found that “consumers are also confused between food labeled as 'organic' and 'non-genetically modified.'" 

While the study, a national survey of 1,132 respondents, found that respondents would pay 35 cents more for apples that were labeled "Non-GMO Project" and 40 cents more for those labeled "USDA Organic," there was a frightening finding: When it came to granola bars, the same respondents were willing to pay 35 cents more for a box of 12 bars that were labeled "Non-GMO Project" and 9 cents more for a box marked "USDA Organic."

As the University of Florida wrote about the study, "genetically modified material is not allowed in food labeled 'USDA Organic,' while 'Non-GMO Project' means the food has no more than 0.9% GM characteristics." 

While one could argue the sample size is small, it points out that people don’t read labels carefully and may not be able to distinguish between labels.

Another section of the research delved into the much-debated National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, published in June 2016, which mandates that GMOs be labeled on a package by text, symbol or QR code. Many argue that people either do not have a mobile device that can read a QR code or would simply ignore it. The study found that consumers were willing to pay more for a GMO food if the information was provided by a QR code; however, the lead researcher, Brandon McFadden added that “this finding indicates that many of the study respondents did not scan the QR code.”

Food@MSU says the inaugural poll reveals that the public lags far behind current scientific understanding when it comes to food. Equally troubling, Americans aren’t turning to scientists for answers. The study found that 48% of Americans say they never or rarely seek information about where their food was grown or how it was produced.

If we ever want to achieve a higher level of transparency and understanding of our foods, we must listen to these findings and come to the conclusion that our methods of communicating to shoppers is just not effective.