A new paper looks into how ideas about “naturalness” play into opinions about genetically engineered food.
“It’s an overview of where we are,” says Sydney Scott, assistant professor of marketing in the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, who previously published research on the “moralization” of genetically modified foods and the role of consumer “disgust” in their consumption.
“It’s looking at the state of what’s been done in the regulatory landscape and the research in understanding attitudes,” Scott says.
Still ‘grossed out’
The upshot of the team’s work is that after more than 20 years of growth in genetic engineering in agriculture, consumers have largely remained skeptical, even to the point of being “grossed out” by the idea.
“In some contexts, people view nature and naturalness as sacred and genetically engineered food as a violation of naturalness,” the paper’s authors write. The prevailing research also shows that consumers follow “the magical law of contagion”—the idea that the slightest contact between natural foods and something else contaminates it. Thus, a housefly’s wing in a bowl of soup renders the entire serving inedible.
What the research overview doesn’t address, however, is why some consumers seem to be fine with heavily processed foods—Hamburger Helper, frozen microwave dinners, or maple-flavored “pancake syrup”—but cannot abide genetically engineered foods such as weed-resistant soybeans, vitamin A-enriched rice, or fast-growing salmon.
“Consumers seem to be saying it’s not OK to poke into the DNA. That’s yucky,” Scott says. “People are grossed out by that.”
Scott says the Annual Review commissioned the research findings overview. “We were hoping it would provide a useful synthesis of what we know to a broad audience—the risks and benefits of this technology, what people think, and why?—and highlight the importance of this pro-naturalness context.”
Changes to the food landscape
Through their review of the literature, the researchers note that prior work identified four governmental approaches to regulating genetically modified crops, including promotional, permissive, precautionary, and preventative. For example, the United States tends to have a permissive approach, grows a lot of genetically modified crops, and says they are “generally recognized as safe.”
By contrast, the European Union is restrictive in its approach, allowing only two genetically engineered crops to be grown commercially—potatoes and maize—and even those are not grown for human consumption “due to consumer resistance,” according to the research paper.
Yet globally, the increase in genetically engineered crops has grown to cover half of US cropland and 12 percent of total cropland—mostly in North and South America and Asia. At the same time, worldwide sales of organic food have climbed from about $15.2 billion in 1999 to $90 billion in 2016.
A key aim of the research team’s work was to expose the gap between advocates of genetically engineered foods and opponents.
“This won’t be solved by just taking into account the scientific information,” which shows genetically engineered foods have no adverse effects on the environment or human health, Scott says.
“When we’re communicating with people about this technology, to have a successful conversation, we have to realize that,” she adds.
“What we’re trying to figure out now is what will allow people to reach a better consensus. I don’t think it’s insurmountable.”
The paper appears in the Annual Review of Nutrition.