Canadians are ignorant about GMOs

The Angus Reid Institute has released a report on a survey about Canadians’ knowledge of genetically modified organisms (GMO) with some very disappointing results.

First the good news. In the survey, respondents were first asked a pair of general questions about their food concerns, of which GMOs were one of the options:

  • Which of the following are your three most important considerations when shopping for food? (choose up to three) [the options were given in random order]:
    • Free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
    • Organically grown
    • Locally grown/raised
    • Low fat/low calorie
    • Hormone/antibiotic/pesticide free
    • Nutritional content
    • Meets specialized dietary requirements (i.e. gluten sensitivity/food allergies)
    • Affordability
    • Flavour
    • Convenience in terms of food preparation
    • Trusted/recognized brand
  • And, of the following food characteristics about which some people express concern, which two, if any, are you personally most concerned about? (choose up to two) [the options were given in random order]:
    • Contains Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
    • Grown with pesticides
    • Contains artificial flavours/colours
    • Contains preservatives
    • Raised with Hormones and/or antibiotics
    • Processed/sugary, etc.

Here are the results to the two questions:

and

As you can see, GMOs don’t really rank all that high in Canadians’ concerns at the supermarket. They don’t rank as low as they should, but GMO terror hasn’t really taken hold in Canada.

In fact, in a later question in the survey, respondents were asked if they thought GMOs were “unsafe”. Even among those who said they were unsafe, they cared more about affordability:

So, so far, so good.

Here’s where things start to go downhill.

After being asked those two questions above, respondents were given a fairly vague description of GMOs:

A Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is a living thing whose genes have been altered through genetic engineering. GMOs are used to produce many medications, foods, and other goods, and are widely used in scientific research.

Some examples of GMOs include crops that have been genetically engineered to have better nutrient profiles, or to have desirable traits for cosmetic reasons (for example, an apple that doesn’t turn brown when cut).

Right after being given that description, respondents were then asked how familiar they were with GMOs:

  • Very familiar with GMOs: 16%
  • Know a little bit about them: 60%
  • Have only heard the term: 19%
  • Have never heard of them until now: 5%

Now, you have to take the above results in context with the fact that these are Canadians being surveyed. It’s a quintessential Canadian virtue to not overstate your knowledge of a topic, even if you think you know quite a bit about it. So don’t read 60% “know a little” about them as meaning that 60% of Canadians think they “know little” (note that “know little” ≠ “know a little”) about them. More likely than not, most people who think they know plenty enough about them to spout off their opinions are in that category. We can make the very rough assumption that only 10-15% actually think they only know a little, and the remaining 45-50% don’t consider themselves experts on the topic but think they understand it well enough to make decisions and lecture others – they “know a little bit about them” in the Canadian sense. So if we take that estimated 45-50% and add it to “very familiar” group, we can figure that ~60% of Canadians think they know enough about GMOs to have informed opinions on the subject.

The first real question respondents were asked in the explicitly GMO section was whether they think GMOs are generally safe to eat. 39% said “generally safe”, 28% said “generally unsafe” (33% “not sure”). Good, but not great. It’s at least uplifting that the GMO fear campaigns have only succeeded in fostering mostly uncertainty, rather than outright rejection, but there’s clearly a lot of work to do.

The problem demographics, starting from the worst, were:

  • Québécois (26% safe; 38% unsafe; 35% not sure). Québécois were by far the worst anti-GMO group in Canada.
  • Females (31% safe; 32% unsafe; 38% not sure). Especially middle-aged females, but also, disappointingly, young females have high levels of GMO fear, but also very high levels of GMO doubt. Both young (18–34) and middle-aged (35–54) females were tied for the second highest “unsafe” score at 35%, and the only reason the overall score for women was slightly “better” was because of the enormously high level of doubt (43%)) in older women (55+), which was the highest of all demographics except for Atlantic Canada.
  • Atlantic Canada (29% safe; 24% unsafe; 48% not sure). More Atlantic Canadians think GMOs are safe than unsafe… but the level of GMO doubt is the highest of all demographics by far.
  • Lower-income Canadians (33% safe; 31% unsafe; 36% not sure). Again, a slight edge to “safe” over “unsafe”, but lots of doubt.
  • Lower education levels (34% safe; 26% unsafe; 40% not sure). Same as above, but more extreme.

The demographics that get it right, from best, are: the prairie provinces, young and middle-aged males, higher-educated (university or better), and wealthier Canadians.

Things are still not looking that bad yet. But now we come to the last two questions. Brace yourself.

The second last question was this:

To the best of your knowledge, which of the following techniques for introducing desired traits in food crops are considered “genetic modifications” – that is, the foods resulting from these techniques would be considered GMOs. (Choose all that apply)

  • Traditional crossbreeding (for example, breeding strawberries with each other to try to get the biggest, sweetest berry possible)
  • Mutagenesis (that is, subjecting an organism to chemicals or radiation until it develops a desired trait)
  • Recombinant DNA (that is, introducing the gene for a desired trait from one species into a different
    species)

The correct answer is: all of them. All of those methods modify the genes of an organism to create a new “species” (new breed/new line/whatever, I’m not hip on the terminology – basically your breeding group will now have a different gene pool after than it did before). Of course, most of the fear being spread by anti-GMO groups only talks about “frankenfoods” created via recombinant DNA with transgenes (from other species), but all of these are genetic modification techniques.

So how’d Canadians do?

Not great.

Even among people who considered themselves very familiar with GMOs, they only got 1 out of 3 right on average. There wasn’t really any difference between those who claimed to be very familiar, and those who only “know a little”. In fact, they did only slightly better than people who were admittedly clueless about the topic!

Canadians are woefully ignorant about GMO foods.

Despite that….

The final question in the survey was about labelling. Respondents were given the same three choices as the previous question and asked which should be labelled. 2⁄3 said foods created via recombinant DNA should be labelled, which didn’t surprise me at all. 2⁄3 also thought foods created by mutagenesis should be labelled, even though only 46% thought they were GMOs. But astonishingly, almost 2 in 5 thought traditionally crossbred organisms should be labelled as well! LOLWUT? That would mean labelling every goddam thing in the supermarket!

The ignorance was pretty consistent across demographics. There were a few amusing blips: For example, men are more likely than women to say GMO foods don’t need labelling… but men are also more ignorant than women about what GMOs actually are. (Or if the genders are equally ignorant, men guessed worse.)

So what can we take away from this survey?

  • Canadians don’t really care all that much about GMOs.
  • Canadians don’t really know all that much about GMOs, but they think they do.
  • Anti-GMO propaganda is sowing a lot of doubt, but not all that much fear.
  • Canadians really don’t know what the fuck GMOs are, but want to know that they’re in their food.

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