Many Britons Claim They Avoid Purchasing GMO Foods, Yet Admit They Don’t Know How to Identify Them

May 22, 2021
R&WS Research Team
Consumer Behaviour | Environment | Science & Technology

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Recent research conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies looked at what the British public think about genetically-modified organisms, the use of pesticides, and the feeding of hormones and antibiotics to livestock.

Overall, our research finds that the public disapproves quite strongly of all three and claims to try and avoid buying products made using these processes but admit to not actually knowing how to differentiate them from products not created by these processes. In addition, we find some interesting age group patterns, particularly that younger respondents are far more likely to approve of these various agricultural technologies than older respondents.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Looking first at genetically modified organisms, we find that a plurality in Great Britain (44%) thinks GMOs are unnatural and harmful to consumers and the planet, whereas a smaller minority (24%) thinks they increase the yields of crops and are beneficial to both consumers and the planet. A high 32% say they don’t know the answer to this question.

Mirroring the above figures, we find that 25% support, 36% oppose, and 29% neither support nor oppose the genetic modification of crops within an agricultural context. Younger respondents were far more likely than older respondents to say they support GMOs, with 44% of those aged 18 to 24 expressing support, but only 19% of those aged 65 or older (a possible consequence of a generally positive module on GMOs in the GSCEs).

Highlighting the split of the British public on the question of GMOs (roughly a third support, a third oppose, and a third sit on the fence), we found an even sharper division when we asked respondents if they actively try to avoid buying products that have been genetically modified: 49% said yes, and 51% said no. Older respondents were somewhat more likely to say that they actively avoid buying GMO products, with 56% of those aged 65 or older saying they avoid it, but only 45% of those aged 18 to 24.

The remarkable findings come when we asked respondents whether they actually know how to identify products that have been genetically modified when they are shopping for food. 65% of Britons say they do not know how to identify GMO products at the supermarket, a proportion that rises to 70% among those aged 55 or older. These findings are particularly interesting in the context of the previous questions, as they highlight that the British public (especially older Britons) disapprove in significant proportions of GMOs and nearly half claim to avoid buying GMO products, yet two-thirds admit they don’t actually know how to identify which items have been genetically modified.

In part, this finding may be a consequence of the fact that all or nearly all food sold in supermarkets and stores have not been genetically modified (owing to Nassim Taleb’s minority rule). Most shoppers may therefore be assuming that they are actively avoiding GMO foods without having to know how to identify whether a product is indeed not genetically modified. They might perhaps think that they would only be eating GMO foods if they actively sought them out.

Meat Produced Using Hormones and Antibiotics

The practice of feeding hormones and antibiotics to livestock is even less popular among the British public than genetically modified organisms: up to 57% think that the practice is unnatural and harmful to both consumers and the environment, and only 15% affirmed that it increases the yield of meat and is therefore beneficial to both consumers and the planet. Once again, a generational split was evident here, as 26% of those aged 18 to 24 consider feeding hormones and antibiotics to livestock to be beneficial on the whole, which is more than twice the proportion of those aged 65 and older who hold this view (11%). Nonetheless, even among younger respondents, a plurality (46%) still holds the view that the practice is harmful on the whole.

In plain terms, 14% support and 52% oppose the use of hormones and antibiotics to increase the meat yield of livestock. Once again, opposition is at its highest among those aged 65 or older, among whom it sits at 63%.

As with GMO products, with hormones and antibiotics we also have a situation where 52% of the British public say they actively try to avoid buying meat that has been given hormones or antibiotics, yet 72% admit they do not know how to identify such meat. Once again, the situation is particularly incongruous among the older age groups who are particularly inclined to say they actively avoid meat produced using hormones and antibiotics, yet they do not know how to spot them.

As with GMOs, it might be possible that shoppers merely assume that their foods have generally not been fed hormones or antibiotics (indeed, packaging labels usually indicates thus) and are not actively checking whether or not they are wrong in their assumptions or have been deceived.

Use of Pesticides

When it comes to the use of pesticides, we find that 18% support and 46% oppose using pesticides in agriculture, with younger respondents once again being the most inclined to be supportive (30% of those aged 18 to 24 say they support their use). Explaining these figures is the fact that 51% find pesticides unnatural and harmful, whereas 22% considers them beneficial for improving crop yields.

Likewise, mirroring our results for GMOs and for meat produced with antibiotics and hormones, 48% claim to actively avoid purchasing food that has been grown using pesticides, yet 68% they do not know how to identify such food.

Overall, this pattern of results across the board is indicative of a British public that wishes to eat healthier—or who feels social pressure to say they are trying to eat healthier—yet either does not have the tools to actually identify certain key facts about the food products they purchase (suggesting there could be a case for labelling regulations to be updated), or merely assumes the products they consume fit the criteria they like and are unaware of a need to pay attention (suggesting a need for broader public awareness of the extent to which the foods made available to them may be produced with such disapproved methods).

Even so, given Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s minority rule, disapproval of these methods and awareness of the particular labelling needed to identify foods that are not produced with these methods by a determined minority of food shoppers is likely to be enough to prevent such foods from being significantly present in stores.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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