Skip to main content

Labeling genetically modified food makes people less panicky about it

Labeling genetically modified food makes people less panicky about it


It’s all about being transparent

Share this story

Peggy Lowe | NPR
Peggy Lowe | NPR

Labeling improved Vermonters’ opinions of genetically modified food, compared to elsewhere in the nation — even taking into account age and education, according to a study published in Science Advances. People who saw the labels were actually 19 percent less opposed to GMO foods, compared to people who didn’t see the labels at all.

Vermont was compared to the rest of the nation because two years ago, the state passed a law requiring that all GMO food bear a label. Food manufacturers lobbied against the law, and some pulled their products from the state entirely — apparently out of concern that the labels would drive consumers away from genetically modified food. Scientific organizations, including the American Academy of Sciences, also opposed the labeling laws. A few weeks after the Vermont bill passed, the national legislature passed its own bill with a nationwide standard, discouraging other states from passing their own laws and turning Vermont into a perfect test subject. Would the labels scare people away from genetically modified food? The answer, it turns out, is no.

“There’s this assertion out there that technology will scare people away, but people actually want to know how their food is produced,” said economist Jane Kolondinsky who led the study. “This isn’t just about curiosity; it’s how people decide what to buy and eat.”

To find how people decide, Kolodinsky, and fellow economist Jayson Lusk, sent phone surveys to more than different 7,800 residents in the years before and after Vermont’s labeling laws went into effect. In Vermont, people were asked if they supported or opposed GMOs, and elsewhere, respondents were asked how “concerned” they were about GMOs being hazardous to their health. Combining these results showed that Vermont residents were 19 percent less opposed to GMOs as a whole, in spite of the mandatory labeling.  

It’s all about giving consumers a sense of control.

Combining new biotechnology with a lack of transparency makes for a “perfect storm,” Kolodinsky said, and food labeling gives people that are nervous about genetic modification the choice of whether to buy it.

Comments on the proposed federal standards are still open until July 3rd. But there’s a chance that the clear-cut labeling that Vermonters saw won’t be implemented on the national scale. The USDA teased that they might change GMO labels to bioengineered, or BE instead. And it’s possible that instead of clear labels, the USDA might add QR codes or web URLs that customers need to scan or visit to find out whether their groceries are genetically modified.

This type of label forces people to jump through hoops that they might not be willing, or able to jump through, according to Rutgers University psychologist Cara Cuite, who wasn’t involved in today’s study. More than half of senior citizens and 33 percent of low-income households don’t own smartphones — so a QR label is effectively “almost like not having a label at all,” she said. That may render these results irrelevant. So, too, would changing GMO labeling to BE labeling.

Today’s study suggests that the trick to increasing consumer trust is just transparency, Kolodinsky said. So an effective label that reassures consumers is probably a simple one — something policymakers should keep in mind.