The fast-approaching July 1, 2016, deadline for Vermont’s new labeling law – and a new federal proposal that would set a national system for disclosure – for genetically modified (GM) food has provoked a range of responses from food manufacturers while reigniting debate about the need to balance the weight of scientific evidence against consumer demand for transparency. At the center of the debate lay questions of trust in science and how the ways we communicate risk serve to increase or decrease that trust.
On the industry side, in January, Campbell declared support for mandatory labeling for products containing GM ingredients, and in March, General Mills announced its own intent to voluntarily label GM food products. Other big players, such as chocolatier Mars, have made similar announcements. With Vermont’s labeling law looming, General Mills and others have appeared to focus their efforts on arguing for a nationwide approach to GM food labeling.
Perhaps not coincidentally, General Mills’ announcement came only days after the failed efforts by the U.S. House and some members of the U.S. Senate to ban states from requiring mandatory GM food labeling. Specifically, the House bill would have prohibited states from requiring GM food labeling on the basis that informing them is not “necessary to protect public health and safety or to prevent the label from being false or misleading.” The Senate bill sought to establish voluntary labeling standards for GM foods, an effort that ultimately expired due to lack of needed support.
As the debate over GM food labeling continues to rage, it’s worth looking at the reasons consumers support or oppose labeling. A body of communication research, including a recent study we co-authored, suggests that consumers' views on GM foods reflect their values and how information about labeling is communicated to them more than the actual science.
Shouldn’t latest science settle it?
The fault lines over GM food labeling at this point are well-established.
On the one hand, labeling proponents argue that consumers have the right to know what is in the food they purchase so as to avoid possible health risks associated with GM ingredients. Others argue that labeling gives consumers the ability to avoid GM ingredients as a larger ideological statement about agro-food industry.
More generally, one could say that resistance to labeling flies against consumer demand in an age when experts admonish us to read nutrition labels to watch our sugar intake and avoid certain types of fats. Also, not telling people makes it look like there is something that the food manufacturers are hiding, which can damage the trust consumers place in them.
On the other hand, labeling opponents point to a lack of scientific evidence that GM ingredients are harmful to public health or the environment and argue that labeling will present an unnecessary financial burden on food manufacturers. Others note that consumers who wish to avoid food with GM ingredients already have the option to purchase organic food products, which provide non-GM options.
Regarding the balance of scientific evidence on safety, a recently released National Academies of Sciences (NAS) report would seem to lay to rest the issue. Its exhaustive review of over 900 scientific publications found, among other things, no solid findings showing a difference between the health risks of eating genetically engineered or conventionally bred food ingredients.
It is doubtful, however, that the NAS report will entirely remove public doubt about the risks or demands for labeling.
Research on public risk perceptions shows that it is not only the objective scientific assessment of risk that matters but also the subjective qualities of risk. These include whether people have control over their exposure to potential risks and whether they believe the risks are well-understood by scientists. Trust in the risk managers is also key, and people want to have a voice in decisions that ultimately affect them.
Value of consumer involvement
In terms of risk perceptions, results from a 2015 Pew Center study found that 57 percent of Americans did not believe that GM foods are safe. The Pew study found that 67 percent do not believe that scientists yet have a clear understanding of the public health implications of GM foods. Indeed, the Pew study found that the strongest predictor of believing that GM foods are safe is whether people believe scientists have a clear understanding of the risks.
In comparison, 88 percent of scientists with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) believed GM foods to be safe.
Some may see this opinion divide as evidence of an irrational public. We see it as evidence of communication processes that have paid inadequate attention to how consumers' values affect risk-based decision making.
Rather than having a voice in the decisions, consumers are mostly asked to trust the experts, typically a faceless government institution or regulatory body. This can lead to a disconnect in what scientists and consumers consider the relevant facts in a decision.
Our own research, recently published in the Journal of Risk Research, found that people are much more supportive of a labeling decision (regardless of the outcome) when they were told that food companies had considered public input before making their decision. Therefore, recounting consumers' influence in GM labeling decisions is an important factor on how people support the decisions.
Examples show how some organizations are recognizing the importance of conveying this information. In the press release accompanying the recent NAS report, Committee Chair Fred Gould offered this statement: that the committee “focused on listening carefully and responding thoughtfully to members of the public who have concerns about GE crops and foods….”
Similarly, Campbell’s President and Chief Executive Officer Denise Morrison said in a New York Times article about the food manufacturer’s labeling decision, “We’ve always believed consumers have a right to know what’s in their food…. We know that 92 percent of Americans support G.M.O. labeling, and transparency is a critical part of our purpose.”
Examining the effect of these statements remain questions for future research. Our previous work would suggest, however, that underscoring how public input was considered may likely lead to greater support for the NAS conclusions or Campbell’s decision, even if people do not wholly endorse the outcomes.
Although transparency is not a cure-all, including people in the decision-making process and providing information about how an organization reached its decision can lead to greater decision acceptance.
To this end, incorporating consumers’ values in decisions that affect them, such as what ingredients manufacturers put in their food products, and communicating that back to the public can go a long way toward building trust and bridging the gaps between scientific and public understanding of risk.
Katherine McComas, Professor of Communication, Cornell University; Graham Dixon, Assistant Professor of Science and Risk Communication, Washington State University, and John Besley, Associate Professor of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan State University