Science in Society Archive

Public Say No to GMOs

Sam Burcher summarises polls worldwide, which consistently show rejection of GMOs.

A 2003 poll conducted on the Internet asked 2 400 members of the UK public what they thought about the long- term health effects of genetically modified foods.

  • 83% said they did not think the general public knew enough about the long-term effects of GM foods on our health
  • 78% said they were worried about this new technology was being driven more by profit than by public interest
  • 75% said they were worried that GM Crops would compromise the integrity of Non-GM crops
  • 71% said they were concerned about the negative impact of GM crops on the environment.

The survey was conducted by the Internet Marketing Research Services and adopted the Government’s own GM Nation debate questionnaire, the results of which will be revealed later on the summer. The question was also asked to GM’s role in developing countries.

  • 48% believed GM crops could benefit developing countries
  • 34% disagreed

In 2001, 1 024 American adults took part in an telephone survey. The results showed broad doubt on the basic issue of food safety.

Asked if they thought GM foods were safe, 35% thought they were safe, 52% unsafe and 13% had no opinion. On the question of government-enforced labelling of foods containing GM ingredients, 93% said government departments should request labelling; this near unanimity of public opinion is rare in polls.

As to whether they would buy foods labelled GM, 57% say that they would be less likely to buy it; in contrast 52% say that would more likely buy food labelled organic.

Gender plays a role in perceptions of GM foods: 62% of women think that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat against 25% who think they are; whereas 46% men think GM foods are safe to eat against 40% unsafe. Regarding labelling, 49% men would be less likely to buy GM labelled food, as opposed to 65% of women. Similarly, 49% men and 54% women say they would buy organic foods.

In 1999, a phone poll conducted by BBC’s teletext service Ceefax received 10 392 calls from viewers saying they would not eat GM potatoes following Dr Arpad Puztai’s research on rats fed GM potatoes; only 280 people rang up to say they would.

In Australia, a three-year survey began in 2001 by the Commonwealth Government agency Biotechnology Australia, shows that public concern regarding GM foods and crops has risen since.

In 2003, 54% of people believe that risks are higher than benefits, compared to 51% in 2002 and 49% in 2001. In 2003, only 27% believe that the benefits are higher than the risks, compared to 32% in 2002 and 20% in 2001. Those uncertain of GM technology are 19%, (17% in 2002 and 31% in 2001.)

It is thought the recent rise in concern over GM is linked to the high profile public debate on Canola. When asked if the risks with GM foods would increase or decrease over time the survey indicates another rise in concern. Those who feel risks will decrease dropped from 45% in 2002 to 40% in 2003. Those who feel the risks will increase rose to 35% in 2003 from 31% last year.

According to that poll, the public perceives the risks of GM as:

  • potential allergens in food 65%
  • multinational control of food supply 59%
  • unknown long term environmental effects 55%
  • Unknown long term health effects 45%

In comparison, the key benefits of GM were:

  • More efficient use of agricultural land 55%
  • Decreased use of chemical and pesticides 54%
  • Higher crop yields resulting in cheaper food 44%
  • Improved nutritional value of food 41%

A European poll covering all the member states in 2001 by Eurobarometer show that European citizens fear the long-term health impacts of eating GM food; 70% said they don’t want GM foods and 94% want to be able to choose whether or not to eat it.

During one of the GM Nation debates in Taunton, UK, in June 2003, the overwhelming response from the public was, to not put GM into the food chain without finding out exactly what the risks are. All 13 round tables in the room, each with 8 or 9 people, agreed they were not in favour of GMOs, as they did not think them safe to eat, and would neither improve the quality of food nor UK’s agriculture.

A straw poll at the end of the meeting on "Who in this room is in favour of GM technology?" produced not a single show of hand.

Article first published 04/07/03


  1. Clover C. Environment Editor. GM Food Companies driven by profit not health. The Daily Telegraph 16th June 2003.
  2. Langer G. Poll: Skepticism of Genetically Modified foods. Behind the Label. 19th June 2003
  3. BBC online newtwork. Sci/Tech. Government Covered Up Food report. © BBC
  4. Agnet. Australian Polls Show Rise in Concerns about GM Foods and Crops. 20th June 2003
  5. The Wellcome Library . The Wellcome Trust.

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