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University of Vermont study shows GMO labeling decreases opposition to GMO foods

A recent study at the University of Vermont found that labeling on genetically-modified products actually improved consumer perceptions of genetic engineering.

Labeling of genetically–modified products has been controversial since the concept was introduced. In 2016, several states introduced bills to label genetically modified food products. Many states included an initiative on the voting ballot, and despite the seeming demand for labeling based on surveys, in most states the initiatives did not receive the popular vote. Vermont, on the other hand, passed a law to label genetically-modified foods on July 1, 2016 without presenting it for a popular vote.

Based on what seemed like increasing consumer demand for the “right to know” what went into the products they bought, and in reaction to Vermont’s state law, Congress passed a mandatory labeling law on July 27, 2016. The federal law changed the wording on labels from “produced using genetic engineering” to “bioengineered” or simply replaced the wording with a QR code. The federal law superseded any state regulation in effect. However, it was not scheduled to be implemented until July 2018 and according to some sources may be delayed. Although the Vermont law was effectively rendered inactive after the passage of the federal law, some foods still contain the genetic engineering label.

Industry and scientists opposed labeling because they felt that labels would be confusing to an uninformed audience. Industry feared a backlash from consumers refusing to buy products labeled as genetically engineered despite their safety. Scientists were concerned that labeling food would cause farmers to opt for heavy pesticide use rather than risking reduced consumer purchases because of the presence of GMOs.

To test how labels affected consumer attitudes of genetically engineered food, University of Vermont researcher Jane Kolodinsky and Purdue University researcher Jayson Lusk compared Vermont consumer views before and after the state labeling law went into effect, and compared Vermont consumer views—where genetic engineering labels existed—with those of the rest of the country, where genetically modified food had no label.

Kolodinsky and Lusk conducted phone surveys in Vermont over three different time periods before the law went into effect and two time periods afterwards. A second nationwide survey was conducted online during the same time periods. Vermont answers were not counted in the national survey results.

Results of the surveys in Vermont showed that the labels actually decreased opposition to genetically engineered food by 19 percent. In the rest of the country, where labeling has not gone into effect, opposition has stayed about the same. The survey did not ask for information about why consumers had the attitudes they indicated, so the researchers cannot say for certain why attitudes changed. The labels don’t include information about genetic engineering; they simply indicate its inclusion in the product.

The authors surmise that the labels may “give consumers a sense of control” in deciding whether to buy a product. Further research, they add, should examine whether labels “improve a sense of control, improve trust, or operate by some other psychological mechanism.”

Obviously Vermont is only one state, and its citizens’ attitudes may not necessarily reflect those of other consumers across the country.

In opposition to previous theories, however, Kolodinsky and Lusk’s study shows that disclosure of genetic engineering has the potential to improve attitudes toward genetically modified food.


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