A study takes the nation's pulse on genetically engineered foods.

Republicans, men, white people, avid news-watchers…No, we’re not talking about Bill O’Reilly’s fan base. Actually, these demographic groups share a particular tolerance of genetically engineered (GE) foods, according to a Cornell University study on American attitudes towards bioengineering.

The study, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science last week in St. Louis, MO, also shows that Americans in general are split on the merits of GE foods, though support has waned slightly in the past three years.

“I hypothesize that lack of media attention in recent years is causing people to use considerations off the top of their head,” said James Shanahan, professor of communications at Cornell and the study’s lead author. “Mixing terms such as ‘technology’ and ‘food’ is inherently something some people feel queasy about.”

Researchers surveyed a nationwide sample of the population between 2002 and 2005, asking subjects demographic data, such as gender, race, political affiliation, religious beliefs and attention paid to the news as well as their opinions on GE foods.

Support declined by a small but statistically significant amount across the board in the three years of the study. While religion didn’t seem to have any effect on attitude toward bioengineering, women, non-whites and Democrats were typically more skeptical of GE foods than their male, white, Republican counterparts.

“Women tend to see more risk across the board on a variety of issues, so we were not surprised by that finding,” Shanahan said, adding that the same is generally true for non-white Americans. “Republicans are more comfortable with ‘industry’ and corporations in general, so I think that is the driving issue there.”

Sidney Mintz, an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins who studies cultural conceptions of food, questions the results of the Cornell study. He believes subjects were probably poorly informed about bioengineering and were unable to respond in a way that reflects their everyday choices. Instead, he said, they probably relied on abstract ideas of where they fit on a political spectrum.

“I think a large majority of Americans don’t really know what GE foods are, and most of them are in fact indifferent,” Mintz said via e-mail. “If the subjects were told the issues, then yes, they’d no doubt break down along the lines the researchers found. But I don’t know whether that would have much to do with what either group actually bought or ate—except for a really exiguous minority.”

William Hallman, a director at the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers and the author of an earlier study on perceptions of GE food, agreed that Americans are unaware of bioengineering.

“It may not matter that opinions measured on a survey shift slightly over time in either a positive or negative direction if the public doesn’t connect those opinions with their behaviors as consumers,” he said via e-mail.

John Besley, a Cornell graduate student and coauthor of the current study, said that he and his colleagues are hoping to more closely examine the social forces at work behind their findings.

“A lot more research needs to be done to figure out what the messages people are receiving, and how people are thinking about biotech now, as opposed to the last few years.”

Originally published March 2, 2006

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