July 1, 2015

Americans, Politics and Science Issues

Chapter 6: Public Opinion About Food

The Pew Research survey included a handful of questions related to genetically modified (GM) foods and one on the safety of foods grown with pesticides. This chapter looks at each of these in turn. The findings point to a mix of factors that are central to the public’s beliefs about food safety. Women and blacks appear to be more leery of GM foods and pesticides on crops. And there are sizeable differences across education and knowledge groups in thinking about these foods. Additionally, the public tends to be skeptical that scientists, on the whole, have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops

Genetically Modified Foods

Safety of Eating Genetically Modified FoodsA minority of adults (37%) say that eating GM foods is generally safe, while 57% say they believe it is unsafe. And, most are skeptical about the scientific understanding of the effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on health. About two-thirds (67%) of adults say scientists do not clearly understand the health effects of GM crops; 28% say scientists have a clear understanding of this.

Information about eating GM products is sometimes provided voluntarily by food producers. About half of U.S. adults report that they always (25%) or sometimes (25%) look to see if products are genetically modified when they are food shopping. Some 31% say they never look for such labels and 17% say they do not often look.

Gender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

Fewer women (28%) than men (47%) believe eating GM foods is safe. Opinions also tend to vary by race and ethnicity with fewer blacks (24%) and Hispanics (32%) than whites (41%) saying that GM foods are safe to eat. Views about GMOs are roughly the same among both younger (ages 18 to 49) and older (50 and older) adults.

Education and Knowledge

Differing Views About Safety of Eating Genetically Modified Foods, by Education and Science KnowledgeViews about the safety of GM foods differ by education. Those who hold a college degree, especially those with a postgraduate degree, are more likely than those with less education to say GM foods are safe.

Those with postgraduate degree say that GM foods are generally safe or unsafe by a margin of 57% to 38%. This is the only education group with a majority saying such foods are generally safe.

Those with more knowledge about science in general are closely divided about the safety of eating GM foods (48% safe to 47% unsafe). Those with less knowledge about science are more likely to see GM foods as unsafe to eat (26% safe to 66% unsafe).

There are no differences between those with a college degree in a scientific field and those with a degree in some other field on this issue.

Party and Ideology

No Differences in Views About GM Food Safety by Party, IdeologyThere are no statistically significant differences on the safety of eating GM foods between Republicans and those who lean to the Republican Party as compared with Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party. Nor are there differences on this issue among political or ideological groups.

Multivariate Analyses

Factors Associated With Views About Safety of Genetically Modified FoodsA multivariate logistic regression predicting the view that GM foods are generally safe finds a number of significant predictors. Belief that scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM foods is a significant predictor of views about GM food safety (+0.24).45

Those with a postgraduate degree are more likely to say such foods are safe, relative to those with a high school degree or less schooling, holding other factors at their means (+0.18). A person with more science knowledge is 17 percentage points more likely to say that GM foods are safe. Adults with less science knowledge and a high school degree or less have a predicted probability of 0.30 of saying genetically modified foods are safe to eat, while adults with a postgraduate degree and more science knowledge have a predicted probability of 0.65.

The predicted probability of a man saying that GM foods are safe to eat was 0.50 (50%) while that of a woman saying such foods are safe was 0.32 (32%) – a difference of 18 percentage points. African Americans are more likely than whites to say that eating GM foods is unsafe (a difference of 14 percentage points).

Holding other factors at their means, those with no party affiliation or leaning are 21 percentage points less likely than are Democrats and leaning Democrats to say that GM foods are safe. There is no significant difference between Republicans and independents that lean to the GOP and their Democratic counterparts, however. Nor is political ideology a significant predictor of views about the safety of GM foods.

A separate model that includes a factor for the judgment that the overall effect of science on the quality of food in the U.S. was either mostly positive or mostly negative also was a significant predictor of views about GM foods. Those with a positive view of science’s effect on food quality were more likely to consider GM foods safe to eat. The other factors shown above were significant in both models. (Further details about this model are available upon request.)

Looking for GM Food Labels While Shopping

Checking for GM Food Labeling, by Key DemographicsThe Pew Research survey also asked respondents how often they pay attention to whether products are labeled as genetically modified when food shopping. Some 25% of adults say they always look for such labels; 25% say they do so sometimes, while 17% say they do so “not too often.” Three-in-ten (31%) say they never look for GM labeling.

In general, those who consider GM foods unsafe check for GM food labels more often: 35% of this group always looks to see if products are genetically modified, compared with 9% among those who consider such foods generally safe to eat.

Gender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

Consistent with gender differences in the perceived safety of eating GM foods, men and women also differ in their reported shopping behavior. Women are more likely to say they look for GM labels at least sometimes while men are more likely to say they never do so.

Blacks are more likely than either whites or Hispanics to say they always look for GM labels while shopping. Differences by age tend to be modest. Fewer seniors report “always” looking for GM labels. There are no differences among other age groups in self-reported attention to GM food labels.

Attention to GM Labels Is About the Same Across Education, Science Knowledge, Party or Ideology Education and Knowledge

There are no significant differences by education or science knowledge in self-reported attention to GM labeling.

Party and Ideology

Party and political ideology groups are about equally likely to report looking for GM labels when food shopping.

Factors Associated With Looking for GM Labeling More OftenMultivariate Analyses

An ordered logistic regression analysis shows that women (relative to men) and African Americans (relative to non-Hispanic whites) report looking for GM food labels more frequently. The average change in predicted probability between never and always looking for food labels among women is 6 percentage points; the average change among African Americans is 7 percentage points. None of the other factors in the model were significant predictors of attention to GM labels.

A separate model (not shown) found that beliefs about whether scientists have a clear understanding about the health effects of GM crops to be a significant predictor of more frequent attention to GM labeling. Gender and race have an independent effect, however, even when controlling for views of scientific understanding about GM crops. (Details are available upon request.)

Perceptions of Scientific Understanding About GM Crops

Survey respondents were asked: “From what you’ve heard or read, would you say scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops or are scientists not clear about this?”

Views on Scientific Understanding of GM cropsTwo-thirds (67%) of adults say scientists do not have a clear understanding, while 28% say scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects.

Not surprisingly, people’s views about scientific understanding of GMOs are significantly related to their views about the safety of eating GM foods and to their own reports of seeking out GM food labels when grocery shopping.

Gender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

A majority of men and women, whites, blacks and Hispanics, and of all age groups, say scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops.

Consistent with gender differences about the safety of eating GM foods, women are less inclined than men to say that scientists have a clear understanding about this.

Older adults are more inclined than younger adults to say scientists do not have a clear understanding about the health effects of GM crops.

Non-Hispanic whites and blacks are more likely than Hispanics to say scientists do not have a clear understanding of this.

Education and Knowledge

No Differences in Perception of Scientific Understanding About GMOs by Education, Science Knowledge, Party or IdeologyWhile those with a postgraduate degree are particularly likely to say that eating GM foods is generally safe, a majority of all education groups, including those with a postgraduate degree, believe scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops. Nor are there differences in views on this point between those with more and less knowledge about science or those with a college degree in a science field as compared with those with degrees in other fields.

Party and Ideology

Similarly, there are no differences among party and ideological groups about scientific understanding of health effects from GM crops.

Multivariate Analyses

Factors Associated With Saying Scientists Have Clear Understanding About Health Effects of GM CropsA multivariate logistic regression model predicting the view that scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops finds older adults inclined to hold a skeptical view about scientific understanding of GMOs. On average, the oldest adults are 25 percentage points less likely than the youngest adults to say scientists have a clear understanding about this issue, controlling for other factors. Women
(-0.06) are more likely than men to hold a skeptical view about scientific understanding of GMOs. Hispanics (+0.10) are more likely than are whites to say that scientists have a clear understanding about these issues.

Safety of Foods Grown with Pesticides

Most Americans are skeptical that eating foods grown with pesticides are safe for consumption. About seven-in-ten (69%) adults say that eating such foods is generally unsafe, while 28% say it is safe.

Eating Foods Grown With PesticidesGender, Age, Race and Ethnicity

The patterns of opinion on this issue are similar to those on the safety of eating genetically modified foods. Women are less likely than men to consider it safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, though a majority of both groups considers eating foods grown with pesticides unsafe.

Blacks and Hispanics are a bit more likely than whites to consider eating such foods unsafe. Majorities of all three racial and ethnic groups say that eating foods grown with pesticides is generally unsafe.

Adults ages 18 to 49 hold about the same views as those ages 50 and older on this issue. Adults under age 30 are a bit more likely than those 65 and older to say that eating foods grown with pesticides is generally unsafe (75% to 64%). Majorities of all age groups consider eating such foods to be generally unsafe.

Eating Foods Grown With Pesticides, by Education and Science KnowledgeEducation and Knowledge

Those holding at least a college degree are more likely than those with less schooling to say that foods grown with pesticides are safe to eat. And those who earned a degree in a scientific field are more likely than other college graduates to consider foods grown with pesticides safe. Similarly, those with more knowledge about science, generally, are more inclined to see such foods as safe to eat. However, majorities of all education and knowledge groups say it is generally unsafe to eat foods grown with pesticides.

Views About Safety of Eating Foods Grown With Pesticides by Party, IdeologyParty and Ideology

Republicans and independents who lean Republican are more likely than their Democratic counterparts to say it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides (39% vs. 23%), although majorities of both groups say that eating such foods is generally unsafe. There are no differences by ideological groups on this issue.

Factors Associated With Views About Safety of Foods Grown with PesticidesMultivariate Analyses

A multivariate logistic regression analysis finds women (-0.16) and African Americans (-0.13) less likely to consider foods grown with pesticides to be safe for consumption, compared to men or whites, respectively. Those who know more about science are more likely to say such foods are safe (+0.14), although education, per se, is not an independent predictor of views about this issue.

Republicans and leaning Republicans are 13 percentage points more likely than Democrats and leaning Democrats to say eating foods grown with pesticides are safe, with other characteristics statistically controlled. The relative influence of party in predicting views on this issue is on par with that of other factors. There is no significant effect of ideology.

A separate model, not shown, which includes judgment that the overall effect of science on the quality of food in the U.S. was mostly positive or negative, was also a significant predictor of views about this. Those with a positive view of science’s effect on food quality were more likely to consider foods grown with pesticides to be safe. The other factors shown above were significant in both models. (Details are available upon request.)

  1. We also ran these analyses without including beliefs that scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM foods to test that the findings shown here hold regardless of this difference in model specification. Details are available upon request.