What do consumers think of GMOs and labeling?

Posted: 7/13/2016

Western South Dakota survey reveals insight

By Bridger Gordon, Sturgis, SD


With the recent discussions by the U.S. Senate on a federal bill that would require labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients, the topic of GMO labeling of foods is once again in the media.

If it becomes reality, the bill would require food manufacturers to use one of three types of labels to inform consumers when genetically engineered, or GMO, ingredients are in their products. The label requirements would also apply to growers of fruits and vegetables that are genetically engineered, like the Arctic Apple and some zucchini.

Presently, no national standard or law exists requiring GMO labeling. Some states, like Vermont, have passed state legislation to mandate that foods containing GMO ingredients be labeled. The passage of a national standard would eliminate a patchwork of state laws with differing standards for various labeling.

But where do consumers stand on this issue of GMO labeling of food products? That was the question, a classmate and I wanted to explore for a FFA Agriscience project that we conducted in spring 2016.

Specifically, we recognized that numerous national studies and media surveys indicate consumers are supportive of GMO labeling of food products, but few such studies reflect insight from consumers in rural states such as South Dakota.

Our research survey was conducted in western South Dakota to evaluate consumer attitudes toward GMOs and GMO labeling of foods among three different generational groups –  high school students, college students and the general adult population. A total of 175 responses were collected, primarily online via SurveyMonkey, with 43 of the responses from high school students, 34 responses from college students, and 98 responses collected from the general adult population. More females responded to the survey than males; 61% of respondents were female compared to 39% of responses from males.

The majority of those surveyed (68%) identified themselves as from a rural background. Those who responded primarily identified as White/Caucasian (93%).


Consumer Responses

  • Regarding prior knowledge of GMOs among those surveyed, the majority of survey participants across all age groups (82%) indicated average to minimal knowledge of this subject. Interestingly, when asked to rank level of GMO knowledge on a scale of 1 (indicating least knowledge) to 5 (indicating most knowledge), 26% of college students indicated a knowledge level of 4 or 5, compared to only 12% of high school students and 17% of adults ranking themselves at that same knowledge level.
  • Among the three populations surveyed, most indicated they do not currently look for GMO label claims on food while shopping. Eighty-one percent of the adults surveyed do not; 91% of college students do not and 95% of high school students do not. Adults indicated the highest preference (45%) for selecting non-GMO, compared to college students (29%) and high school students (21%). But overall, the majority of respondents (64%) across all three age groups did not indicate a preference for non-GMO foods.
  • That said, the majority of all respondents (72%) supported GMO labeling. Specifically, 70% of the adult population, 71% of the college population and 77% of the high school student population indicated support in favor of labeling GMO foods. No college or high school students indicated opposition to GMO labeling; while 9% of adults were opposed to GMO labeling. Across all three populations, 23% indicated no preference toward labeling.
  • Respondents were equally split with 51% indicating yes, such labeling would make them seek out non-GMO food choices, and 49% indicating no such labeling would not increase their selection of non-GMO products.
  • When asked whether both GMO and non-GMO foods should be labeled, the majority of respondents (53%) indicated both GMO and non-GMO food products should have identifying labels.
  • High school students, college students, and the general adult population seemed in agreement on why GMOs should be labeled: The majority of those surveyed (more than 70% in each of the three population segments) identified “Consumers should have the right to know and the right to a choice between GMO and non-GMO” as the primary reason why they support GMO labels on food.
  • When asked if GMO labeling should be federal law, state law, voluntary or if survey respondents had no preference, the majority of respondents (54%) indicated a preference that GMO labeling should be federal law, followed by voluntary (19%) or no preference (15%).
  • Regarding paying higher prices for food products carrying a non-GMO label, the majority of all respondents indicated no (42%) or no preference (34%). But adults had a higher percentage of responses indicating a willingness to pay more (32%) compared to high school and college students, which indicated 12%, and 15%, respectively.
  • In a follow-up question asking how much extra respondents would be willing to pay for non-GMO foods. the majority indicated only 10% more. They ranked fish/meat, fruits, and vegetables as their highest priority non-GMO foods.

Several additional questions revealed interesting insights:

  • When asked if consumers would eat AquAdvantage salmon, the first available fish grown with GMO traits, college students, high school students, and the general population were fairly similar in their responses. The majority of all respondents (43%) were willing to eat AquAdvantage salmon. However, 31% indicated they would not eat a GMO salmon product.
  • When asked if the AquAdvantage salmon should be labeled as a GMO food on the menu, a higher percentage of high school students (30%) indicated the product did not need special label identification on the menu, compared to 9% of college students and 11% of adults. However the majority of respondents (56%) did indicate support for special labeling on the menu.
  • Survey respondents were split on whether GMOs are safe to consume, with 45% indicating “Yes, GMOs are safe” and 43% indicating they are unsure. The amount of people that indicated GMOs were not safe was low at 12%. Specifically, 56% of college student respondents indicated they felt GMOs are safe, compared to 49% of high school and 38% of adults.
  • Most of those surveyed had primarily learned about GMOs from the Internet. The general population’s second most popular source was print sources, like newspapers and magazines. The general population was the most willing to learn more about GMO foods (77% in favor), and high school students indicated the lowest interest in learning more (58% in favor). Overall, the majority of those participating in the survey indicated they would be interested in learning more about GMOs.



It is important to note that these responses are specific to South Dakota and reveal data from a more rural state than most of the national data that has been collected regarding consumer attitudes toward GMOs. Additionally, only a small sample size is represented, and further studies should be conducted to increase confidence level of reported results. The researchers do not suggest that this information reflects national views, but gives insight from a rural demographic by age. 

From this study, it’s important to note that even in a rural, agricultural state, the majority of all respondents (72%) supported GMO labeling.

But, interestingly, the vast majority of the three populations surveyed – high school students, college students and general adult population – indicated they do not currently look for GMO labeling on food products. Likewise, the vast majority of respondents from all three population segments, 64% of respondents, indicated they do not specifically have a preference for non-GMO foods.

We feel these survey results point to a continuing trend among consumers: They want the right to know and the right to a choice between GMO and non-GMO food products.

Most importantly, we believe this survey reveals that a continuing effort by the agricultural industry is needed to educate and inform consumers about biotechnology used in food production. There is a large number of people across all three populations surveyed, over 40%, who are unsure of the safety of GMO products.

Additionally, continuing consumer research in the area of GMO food and labeling preferences and understanding of the technology is clearly necessary.

Editor’s Note: Bridger Gordon is a member of the Sturgis (SD) FFA Chapter. He conducted his research with fellow FFA member Ryan Wilen. Chapter advisor is Brett Monson. 


Bridger Gordon (left) with fellow FFA member Ryan Wilen.


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