Dr. William Hallman
Associate Director, Food Biotechnology Research Program, Food Policy Institute, Rutgers University
A 1983 graduate of Juniata College, Dr. Hallman received his Ph. D. in experimental psychology from the University of South Carolina in 1989 and joined the Rutgers faculty the same year. He has studied public perceptions of risk associated with Lyme Disease, electric and magnetic fields, and hazardous waste facilities. For the last 10 years, he has studied public perceptions of genetically modified foods. He is the author of more than 25 articles and book chapters on public perceptions of risk.
I am the lead investigator on a research project funded by a grant from USDA to investigate how Americans think about biotechnology in food. We have done a series of national telephone surveys of 1,200 randomly selected adults from across the country. Our 2004 report shows that most Americans know little about biotechnology and that has not changed in the last 4 to 5 years. A study done in 1987 by the Office of Technology Assessment found that about 6 percent of Americans knew something about biotechnology. We have increased that number since then. About three quarters of Americans know that methods for modifying genes exist. Slightly over half say they have read some or a lot about genetically modified (GM) foods. Yet 63 percent report that they have never had a conversation about GM foods and 42 percent of those who have discussed it have only done so once or twice.
The public remains unaware of the prevalence of GM ingredients. Less than half the respondents believed GM food is available in stores and less than one third believed they had consumed them. Among those who are aware of the existence of GM foods, the tomato rated the highest in mentions even though the FlavR SavR GM tomato was available only briefly and is no longer offered. This may point to the power of media coverage of GM foods. Following the tomato in prevalence of mentions were GM corn, soybean, chicken and rice, in that order.
About 47 percent of respondents lean toward approval of plant-based GM products, 41 percent toward disapproval and 12 percent are undecided. For animal-based products, the story is different with 27 percent leaning toward approval, 61 percent toward disapproval and 12 percent undecided. Only about one-third of respondents knew that GM foods are not required to be labeled in the U.S. More than one-quarter believe incorrectly that GM foods must be labeled. Nearly all respondents (89 percent) felt GM foods should be labeled. This sentiment may stem from the desire for more information about the products. Whether the product was grown with pesticides was the number one piece of information suggested for the label.
Respondents said they would be more willing to buy GM foods if labels contained information certifying their safety. They rated the Food and Drug Administration, United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency as most reliable issuers of such labels. In summary, Americans have little knowledge of GM foods and so far have not been sufficiently stimulated to seek it.
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