June 23, 2015 | By

Public Perceptions and Understanding of Genetically Modified Foods and Labeling

Science & Our Food Commentary Series

This post is published in collaboration with The Chicago Council’s Running Numbers blog.

By Marcus Glassman, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

The debate over of genetically modified (GM) foods in the US food supply is ongoing and contentious.  Many in the public and policy arenas oppose GM technology for reasons ranging from environmentalism, distrust of industrial agriculture, and general concern over genetic manipulation. Conversely, many in science, policy, and agriculture see GM technology as a tool that agriculture needs in order to adapt to climate change, manage new crop diseases, and produce the increased yields needed to feed a growing global population. Within this contentious debate, one element is particularly controversial: GM labeling.

Currently, policies that promote or ban the labeling of GM and non-GM foods are on the table in 18 states. Legislation that enacts GM labeling—with significant legal caveats—has passed in two states; a 2014 labeling bill that passed in Vermont remains contested in the courts; and in the US Congress, Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) has drafted legislation cosponsored by Representative G.K. Butterfield (D-NC) that would flip the conversation on its head, preventing state-level labeling altogether. The arguments for and against labeling ranges from those citing the public’s need to know what’s in their food, to those who say labeling GM foods will only confuse consumers and draw undo attention to moot concerns and scientifically baseless worries.

For the furor displayed by both sides, there’s one major missing element: What does the average consumer think about GM foods, labeling, and their need to know? In 2013, a research team at Rutgers University tried to find out.

In November 2013, Rutgers released the results of an October 2013 online survey that asked 1,148 randomly selected US participants about their opinions and understanding of GM foods and labeling. The results identified a wide gulf between consumers and the intense debate ongoing among policy makers.

On GM foods generally, consumer awareness and understanding was low:
  • More than half (54 percent) of respondents said they knew very little or nothing about GM foods, and 25 percent said they had never heard of GM foods. 
  • Per GM foods’ availability, less than half (43 percent) of respondents were aware that GM foods are available in supermarkets, and 26 percent believe they have ever eaten GM food.
  • Fewer than half (45 percent) agree that they thought it was safe to eat GM foods.
  • A majority (63 percent) said they would be upset if they were served GM food in a restaurant without knowing it.
  • ​Just over half of respondents (54 percent) said they are willing to pay extra for non-GM foods.
On GM food labels specifically, respondent answers depended on the structure of the question:
  • When asked the open-ended question “What other information do you want on labels?” seven percent of respondents said it was very or extremely important for labels to contain information about GM.
  • When asked the question “Which of the following would you like on labels?” and given a list of options, 59 percent of respondents said GM ingredients should be labeled. This was similar to the percentages that thought information about hormones (63 percent), pesticides (62 percent), antibiotics (61 percent), US origin (60 percent), or allergens (59 percent) should be on labels.
  • If asked directly “Should GM foods require a label?” three quarters (73 percent) of respondents said yes.
  • Of those surveyed, only one quarter (26 percent) knew that current regulations do not require GM labels.

Overall, consumer understanding on both GM foods and GM labeling was low. Consumers’ lack of understanding of the issues is at odds with the intensity of the debate ongoing among policy makers, and suggests weak constituent-based justification for state- and federal-level legislative initiatives. Energies of both sides of the debate may be better spent engaging the public in the following ways:

Understand Where the Debate Stands
It is clear from the evidence we have that the level of understanding and debate on GM foods in the general public is far different than it is on Capitol Hill and in state houses. It may behoove policy makers to take a step back from the contentious fight over GM labels, at least until they better understand what labeling would mean to consumers.

Consumer Communication
Resources from both sides of the debate may be better used to increase credible scientific communication on the issues. Policy makers and the media should do their part to help explain what GM foods are; where they come from; how they’re made; they’re benefits and their drawbacks. Once a more informed opinion exists among the public, the debate can and should continue—perhaps with a more collaborative and cooperative approach than previously possible.

Read additional posts in the Science & Our Food series:


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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