Labeling decreases opposition toward GMOs, study finds

By Mark Lynas

June 27, 2018

Labels identifying the presence of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in food products can have the surprising effect of reducing consumer opposition to GMOs, according to a new paper published today.

In the United States, anti-GMO activists have long pushed for labels on food products identifying the presence of GM ingredients, in the belief that such labels would increase opposition and help achieve their goal of eliminating GMOs from the food supply.

Scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science opposed such labeling initiatives on the same basis, arguing that labels were unnecessary and misleading, given the international scientific consensus that GM food is as safe as any other.

Now it appears both interests — the anti-GMO activists and the scientific organizations — may have been barking up the wrong tree. Today’s findings suggest instead that the presence of labels may serve to dispel consumer concerns about GMOs by increasing their sense of control over what they are eating.

Led by Jane Kolodinsky, an applied economist in the University of Vermont’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the study compared levels of consumer opposition to GMO foods in Vermont — the only US state to have implemented a mandatory labeling policy — with consumer attitudes in the rest of the country. The analysis showed opposition to GMO food fell by 19 percent in Vermont after the implementation of mandatory labels.

“Our findings put to bed the idea that GMO labels will be seen as a warning label,” said Kolodinsky, professor and chair of the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics and a Fellow of UVM’s Gund Institute for the Environment. “What we’re seeing is that simple disclosures, like the ones implemented in Vermont, are not going to scare people away from these products.”

Kolodinsky’s study, with co-author Jayson Lusk of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural Economics, suggests a simple, straightforward label disclosing whether a product is “produced or partially produced using GMO ingredients” may improve consumer confidence in GMO technologies and enable consumers to make an informed decision.

“The significance of this study lies in one small but telling detail,” said David Ropeik, an author and expert on the psychology of risk perception. “Respondents in Vermont were asked if they sought or saw information about genetic engineering before or after the labels appeared, and there was no difference. In other words, there weren’t a whole lot of people who even saw the labels. So what seemed to matter most to people was simply that the labels were there. Given that the psychology of risk perception has found that we worry less about any risk when we have choice and engage in that potential risk voluntarily, the study suggests that just by being there labels are more likely to reassure and encourage acceptance of GMOs than scare them away.”

Ropeik also noted that the majority of respondents, both in Vermont and the wider United States, indicated that they didn’t care all that much one way or the other. “The finding also suggests that survey findings indicating public concern about GMO safety are shallow, and that labeling is less likely to be the huge impediment to acceptance of GE products that opponents of the technology hope,” he said.

Findings from the new study suggest that companies that are voluntarily labeling GMO ingredients, such as Campbell’s, have made a smart choice. But they also suggest that the USDA’s proposed mandatory labels — which use the unfamiliar term “bioengineered” rather than “genetic engineering” — may not be such a good idea if they do not help consumers feel adequately informed.

“Based on the study findings, simple disclosures seem to be the most simple way to communicate to consumers,” Kolodinsky wrote in an email to the Alliance for Science. “Our study only looked at simple disclosures, as they were required in Vermont.  The proposed [USDA] labeling regulations provide several different methods of labeling.  The more complex the label or process for obtaining information, the more difficult it is for consumers to access that information to make decisions that meet their needs.”

The findings are particularly important as a real-world case study because while several US states introduced bills to require labeling of GMO foods, Vermont was the only one to implement a mandatory labeling initiative in July 2016 before the new federal legislation came into effect. Though the federal law superseded Vermont’s law, GM labels on packaged food persisted for months and are still seen on some products there.

Kolodinsky, who collected data on Vermonters’ attitudes toward GMO food before and after the labeling policy was implemented, combined her results with Lusk’s national data. Taken together, the study analyzed the attitudes of over 7,800 consumers from 2014-2017 who ranked their attitude toward GMO food using a one to five scale. When controlling for demographic factors, opposition to genetic engineering fell significantly in Vermont after mandatory labeling, whereas opposition continued to increase nationwide.

“One of the concerns many people, including myself, expressed about mandating GMO labels is that consumers might see the label as a type of warning signal and increase aversion to the label. This research shows that this particular concern about mandatory GMO labels is likely misplaced,” said co-author Lusk.

Kolodinsky and Lusk’s research is published today in the journal Science Advances. The Cornell Alliance for Science is seeking views on the USDA’s labeling proposals, in advance of the 3 July comment deadline.