Demographics don't provide easy answers to GMO debate, says Pew Research Center

Pew Research Center: The GMO debate is hugely polarizing, but the divide ‘does not fall along familiar political fault lines’

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pew Research Center: Politics and demographics aren’t great predictors when it comes to attitudes about food and health
Pew Research Center: Politics and demographics aren’t great predictors when it comes to attitudes about food and health

Related tags: Genetically modified organism

Think anti-GMO sentiment is primarily the preserve of white college educated liberals? Think again, says Pew Research Center, which has just conducted a consumer survey suggesting that attitudes on GMOs, organics, and other food issues are “conspicuously not political."

While attitudes towards climate change are very clearly drawn along party political lines, says Pew’s new report​ (based on a national survey of 1,480 adults aged 18+ conducted May 10-June 6, 2016) attitudes towards GM crops are not:

“Roughly equal shares of Republicans (39%) and Democrats (40%) feel that genetically engineered foods are worse for people’s health. And, half of Republicans (50%) and 60% of Democrats have positive views about the health benefits of organic foods.”

So if politics can’t explain what’s going on, is education the driving factor?

Not really says Pew, which notes that a slightly higher percentage (39%) of respondents with postgraduate degrees claimed that foods with GM ingredients are worse for health than those with a high school diploma or less (32%). However, there were not significant differences (the average was 39%).

When people were asked to self-report their 'scientific knowledge' as 'high,' 'medium' or 'low,' the group claiming 'medium' scientific knowledge was the most likely to think GM crops are worse for health (47%), while those professing 'high' knowledge were a bit less negative (37% felt GM crops are worse for health). Those claiming 'low' knowledge were the least negative, with 29% believing GM crops are worse for health.

So if education - or self-reported 'scientific' knowledge - are not key factors in determining views on GM crops, what about age, income, ethnicity or gender?

Here again, says Pew, there are only “modest differences​” by age, education and income, with those aged 65+,  with lower family incomes (<$30k), or high school degrees or less education, slightly more likely to say they do not care much, or at all, about the issue of GM foods.  

Are Democrats or Republicans more likely to be suspicious of genetically modified crops? It turns out they feel about the same, with attitudes on GMOs, organics, and other food issues proving to be “conspicuously not political​,” says Pew Research Center.

Attitudes not strongly linked to politics, education, gender or income

Overall, says the report, politics and demographics aren’t great predictors when it comes to attitudes about food and health.

The divides over food do not fall along familiar political fault lines. Nor do they strongly tie to other common divisions such as education, income, geography or having minor children. Rather, they tie to individual concerns and philosophies about the relationship between food and well-being.

 “One indicator of such philosophies is the degree of concern people have about the issue of GM foods. The minority of US adults who care deeply about the issue of GM foods (16%) are much more likely than those with less concern about this issue to consider GM foods worse for health (75% vs. 17% of those with no or not too much concern about GM foods); they are also much more likely to consider organic produce healthier: 81% compared with 35% of those with no or not too much concern about GM foods.”


  • 39% of Americans consider genetically modified foods worse for a person’s health than other foods.
  • 48% said GM foods were no different from non-GM foods.
  • Almost two thirds (64%) agreed that scientists understand the health effects of GM foods “fairly well​” or “very well​,” but 35% said scientists do not understand the health effects at all or not too well.
  • 16% of adults said they cared ‘a great deal’ about GM foods. Some 37% cared ‘some’ about this issue. About 31% said they did not care too much and 15% did not care at all.
  • Younger adults are more likely to consider GM foods a health risk, with 48% of those aged 18 to 29 saying GM foods are worse for health than non-GM foods vs 29% of those aged 65+.

While there is broad scientific consensus​ **​ that GM crops are safe, most Americans surveyed by Pew believed there is considerable disagreement in the scientific community on this topic.

As for bias, a majority (80%) also felt that scientists’ desire to help ‘connected industries’ influenced their research findings ‘most of the time’ (30%) or ‘some of the time’ (50%).

Despite this apparently widespread distrust of scientists’ motivations, however, 60% still felt that scientists should have a major role in policy issues related to GM foods. By contrast, only 42% felt that food industry leaders or elected officials (24%) should have a major role in such policy decisions.

Source​: National survey​ of 1,480 adults aged 18+ conducted May 10-June 6, 2016 by Pew Research Center

ORGANICS​: Health remains primary purchase driver

  • 55% of Americans polled said organic fruits & vegetables are healthier, and 41% said there is no difference between organic and conventionally grown produce.  
  • 81% of consumers who said they 'care a great deal' about the issue of GM foods think organic produce is healthier.
  • Consumers who claimed to be deeply concerned about the GM foods issue ate more organic foods.
  • The 18% of Americans who are particularly focused on healthy eating are much more likely to consider organic produce to be healthier. They also follow news about GMOs more closely.
  • Among those who bought organic foods in the past month, 76% said a reason was to get healthier foods. Fewer said convenience (22%) or environmental concerns (33%) motivated their decision. (Respondents could tick more than one option.)

Food allergy and dietary restrictions

  • About one-in-seven (15%) of those polled by Pew claimed to have mild, moderate or severe allergies to one or more foods. Another 17% claimed to have intolerances to one or more foods.  

Vegan/vegetarian diets

  • Some 3% of those surveyed said they followed a strict vegan or vegetarian diet and another 6% said they are mostly vegan or vegetarian. So altogether 9% claimed to be mostly or always vegan or vegetarian.
  • By age group, 12% of 18-49 year olds in the survey said they were mostly or always vegan or vegetarian, compared to just 5% of those over 49.
  • Men and women were equally likely to be vegan or vegetarian. There were also no differences across region of the country, education or family income in the share who was vegan or vegetarian. 

Source​: National survey​ of 1,480 adults aged 18+ conducted May 10-June 6, 2016 by Pew Research Center

Healthy eating and demographics

So what about attitudes towards healthy eating? Can these be explained along demographic lines?

According to Pew, men and women are about equally likely to say they are focused on healthy and nutritious eating (16% vs. 20%), although “more men (31%) than women (22%) say a focus on healthy eating does not describe them too well or at all.”

As for age, education, politics and income: “Younger adults, ages 18 to 29, are a bit less likely than older age groups to be at least somewhat focused on healthy and nutritious eating," ​says the report. "But there are no differences among education, family income or party affiliation groups in terms of the share focused on healthy eating.”

Despite the oft-repeated mantra that dietary advice changes so much that consumers are confused about healthy eating, meanwhile, 72% of those surveyed agreed that “the core ideas about how to eat healthy are pretty well understood​.”

Read the full report HERE​. 

* A subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder, Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that “informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.”

** May 2016 report​ from The National Academies of Sciences. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey also found 88% of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and 92% of working Ph.D. biomedical scientists said it is safe to eat genetically modified foods.

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1 comment

Basic knowledge of GMO?

Posted by Robert Howd,

Nowhere in this report could I find any info on how much the respondents knew about GMO foods. For instance, did they know that a major GMO product they are consuming is sugar? Do they think that this sugar is less safe than non-GMO sugar, and therefore they choose products made with cane sugar rather than corn or beet sugar? Do they know that there are almost no GMO fruits and vegetables on the U.S. market (exceptions are Hawaiian papaya, some zucchini, and a trace of sweet corn)?

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