November 10, 2013

We Need to Learn More About What the People Think About Labeling

Filed under: Food and Farms, Mainstream Media — Tags: — Russ @ 3:21 am


We’ll need to learn more about why people vote No in GMO labeling ballot initiatives. I have a theory which I’ll write about soon. In the meantime I’m trying to find some data. This survey of consumer knowledge and attitudes about GMOs and other aspects of food and labeling is one of the kinds of things I was looking for.
The basic finding is that the people know little about GMO presence in the supermarkets, don’t come up on their own with the idea of labeling it, but do want labeling if it’s proposed to them and become more negative about GMOs the more they learn about their presence. All this is about opinion, and obviously not necessarily about what they’ll actually do in the ballot box.
Basic findings:
*If you ask an open-ended question, “What kind of information do you want to see on food labels?”, over half of respondents give some version of “the existing labels are fine”. Only 7.2% said they wanted GMO labeling, although this was the most frequently given answer.
*If you ask, “How important is it that [such-and-such specific information] be on food labels?”, you get the highest responses for GMOs, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, vaccines (high levels of “Extremely important”, low “Not at all important”). Organic and grown/raised locally get the weakest responses, with “grown naturally”, humanely raised, and several other things somewhere in between. “Grown/raised in the US”, which has zero informational value and is just noise, was tied among the second tier, along with its counterpart, whether something came from outside the US (which at least has some informational value).
GMOs had the highest response for both kinds of questions. Grown/raised locally was the second-highest response to the open-ended question (6.4%) but got a relatively indifferent response compared to other specific questions. Conversely, pesticides were effectively tied with GMOs among the specific questions, but only 1.3% volunteered this response to the open-ended question.
*Most people know GMOs exist (but a quarter don’t even know that), but most report none, little, or only “some” knowledge.
*People are numerically split on whether they think eating GMOs is “safe”, although a significantly greater proportion (twice as many) Strongly Disagree (15.6) that it’s safe than Strongly Agree (7.6).
*Most people say they’d pay more for GM-free food. Moderate agreement (38.2) is higher than moderate disagreement (31.1), and strong agreement (15.7) is higher than strong disagreement (10.3).
*By lopsided numbers people say they’d be upset if served a GMO meal in a restaurant without knowing it.
*42.8% know there’s GMOs in supermarkets, 51.2 weren’t sure.
*26.5% know they’ve eaten GMOs, 10.5% say no, 60.7 weren’t sure. (Maybe a handful of people have not and know it. But we can assume most of the Nos are incorrect about themselves.)
*Regarding specific GMOs, knowledge is highest about corn (when specifically asked, 75% know that corn products are GMOs and soybeans/soy (59 and 47 said Yes), lower for canola oil (34), squash (30), sugar (28) and papaya (22). Cottonseed oil’s not even on there. Maybe the study authors themselves were unaware of this one? Meanwhile people wrongly thought other things were GMO – tomatoes (56%; but in the past GM frankentomatoes have been on the market, and in theory they could come back), wheat (55; but extensive field trials have been done, and GM contamination does exist in the wheat environment), chickens (50; but how did the survey deal with a response like, “the chickens themselves aren’t GMO, but their feed is”?), apples (44; but Okanagen’s idiotic “non-browning” GMO apple is in the approval pipeline); rice(40; no commercialized food varieties, but field trials of pharmaceutical rice have contaminated food stocks in the US and elsewhere), salmon (35; but FDA approval of Aquabounty’s frankensalmon seems imminent) oranges (34; but field trials are undergoing).  
The main piece of the puzzle for which I want to see some data is why anyone votes No on these ballots. It has to be a group:
*Who didn’t know or think much ahead of time. (I doubt that the reason the percentages change from a few months out to election day is because many of the original Yes votes change their minds. I’m expecting for now that the No votes were previously undecided or completely ignorant of the initiative. But I need data on that.)
*Who were already planning to vote. (Is there a difference between Rep and Dem voters as far as how many vote No? There’s little difference in opinion polls – self-identified Reps and Dems say they want labeling by similarly high percentages. In the meantime I’m assuming only negligible numbers went to the polls only to vote Yes or No, though maybe a few may have been most passionate about voting Yes on this question.)
For both California and Oregon I need to find out who voted No and why. If the results are similar for both, that’ll be good data. Then I can refine my theory.
In the meantime, this is clear support for my contention that we need permanent grassroots organizations dedicated to, among other things, publicity of all the facts and ideas of GMOs and the need for their abolition. It’s clear that people don’t know much but become negative toward GMOs as they learn. But that vacuum won’t stay there forever, and if we don’t fill it, Monsanto will. The stupid “three trillion meals” crack will sound plausible to a lot of these people who didn’t know they’ve been eating GMOs for years. We need to get there first with questions like, “Are you or the people you know getting sick more? Why do you think that is? Maybe it’s on account of additives in your diet you didn’t know about. Learn more….”



  1. my opinion is to start an organization that represents the ideas that are good for us. It the food is sanctioned by that organization as a benevolent and magnanimous effort to our well being it gets an approval sticker on the label. Let the organization determine who gets the sticker. The good house keeping seal once was a coveted award. As long as the organization remains a public service it can gain power and influence

    Dave Outlaw

    Comment by W David Outlaw — November 10, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  2. Russ,

    First, let me compliment you on your excellent insights. I just discovered your blog (and promptly put it into my RSS reader) and find the depth of your knowledge on the GM topic to be really impressive.

    On the question of what people think about GMO, the survey you cited looks like a good piece of information. I’m starting to read it now, and will share any new insights that might emerge from that effort.

    I run an online system called TopicCentral.com and I’m working on a full topic layout focused on four related areas pertaining to GM crops: (1) safety (animals, humans, ecology), (2) societal impacts (farmers, yields, costs, feeding the world, etc.), (3) labeling, and (4) regulatory matters (FDA-related, patent-related, market control, etc.).

    While I’ve known (vaguely) about GMOs for a long time, it wasn’t until I started the serious research (to develop this topic) that I came to realize the full dimensions of what’s going on. I’m fairly appalled by the degree of information control exercised by the industry, and the political influence it exercises. I would have (naively, in retrospect) thought that the matter of labeling GM content would have been a slam-dunk “yes.” Similarly, I would have thought that farmers would only buy into this scheme if they ended up winning.

    Anyway, please keep up the work. As I said, I’m doing a LOT of work on this topic, and will be giving some presentations on it in the near future. You have my email so feel free to stay in touch that way.


    Terry Steichen

    Comment by Terry Steichen — November 10, 2013 @ 9:18 am

    • Thanks Terry, I’ll delve into the site. At first glance it looks like it could do a good job clarifying issues, finding the real points of agreement and irreconciliability.

      Comment by Russ — November 10, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

  3. Interesting analysis, Russ ~

    There are some other notions about why the vote results do not reflect popular sentiment to label GMOs, most important in my mind, that votes are counted on electronic systems that can be hacked without detection. (see, e.g. any of the scientific studies at http://radyananda.wordpress.com/voting/#Technology%20News%20&%20Reports)

    But, just to put a twist on your question, here’s a libertarian’s view on why we should NOT label GMOs: http://foodfreedomgroup.com/2013/11/10/a-libertarian-farmers-take-on-gmo-labels/

    I transcribed his full 9-minute speech at the bottom of that article.

    Comment by Rady — November 10, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

    • Thanks for the transcript, Rady. I’m in a scrap over this at the following comment thread. Someone linked your piece there, which is where I first saw it.


      I see the fight for labeling as an educational and organizational vehicle toward the goals of participatory democracy and democratic revolution, against the corporatist version of monarchy. The goal is to build an abolitionist movement, which is corollary to the community food movement.

      I don’t think labeling could ever be sufficient in itself, let alone a panacea, even if effectively enacted by a state (a big if). But it’s on the anti-corporate vector, where fought for at the state level. Meanwhile the federal government has no legitimacy to be involved in such issues at all. It couldn’t competently do this even if it wanted to, and would never want to, since the US government is the most aggressively pro-GMO organization on earth, short of the biotech corporations themselves. On the contrary, a federal policy would have only one purpose, to preempt state-level policy and grassroots democracy.

      That’s why I disliked the framing of the FTCLDF “debate” from the start, since it looked like it was designed to conflate grassroots democracy at the state level with FDA preemption, in order to slander the labeling movement as a whole. Meanwhile the “pro” position was doing the same thing but from the opposite point of view, trying to hijack the labeling movement for the industrial organic Hirshberg/AGree/Whole Foods/Walmart agenda. They all merely want to normalize GMOs under the “natural”/”organic” umbrella.

      So while we shouldn’t be trying to set up any kind of “government labeling bureaucracy” (which of course wouldn’t be needed anyway to enact any of the state-level proposals), we should want to make this issue part of the laboratory of democracy, toward the eventual goal of abolishing GMOs completely. This will be the result of a soil-up democratic movement, all of which in turn will be within the context of the general corporate abolitionist movement.

      Right now I’m working on part 3 of my strategy series, which is about the need for abolitionism, including how any kind of “co-existence” is impossible, including seeing labeling as sufficient in itself.

      I’ve heard of the allegation that the California vote was stolen, and can certainly believe it of any sufficiently close election. I haven’t closely studied that myself.

      BTW, “forced labeling” is canned Grocery Manufacturers Association propaganda. If you got that from Salatin, well, that’s where he got it from. In reality the government and corporations have forced GMOs upon us, including through keeping their presence in our food a secret (and look at the numbers in the above survey to see how well this lie is working). All we’re trying to “force” governments to do is be honest and give us OUR information.

      That kind of propaganda lie is an example of the pro-corporate line that tends to crop up in Salatin, and will always crop up in “libertarians”. He also thinks poor little Wall Street was forced by nasty brown people to make subprime loans to them. However much he may sometimes try to present a broad anti-corporatist front, it seems he just can’t help himself.

      Comment by Russ — November 10, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

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