New American Divide: Organic Food and GMOs Spur Disagreement

couple, disagreement
(Image credit: Antonio Guillem/

Should you buy organic? Or avoid foods made with genetically modified ingredients? Americans are divided in their thinking on whether such choices are beneficial for their health, a new survey finds.

Just over half of all Americans, or 55 percent, consider organic produce to be healthier than conventionally grown produce, and 39 percent of Americans think that foods with GM ingredients are less healthy than those without such ingredients, according to the survey.

On the other hand, 41 percent of Americans think that organic produce is neither better nor worse for one's health than conventionally grown produce, and 48 percent of Americans think the same about GM foods, according to the nationally representative survey, published today (Dec. 1) by the Pew Research Center. [10 New Ways to Eat Well]

"The data suggest that people's divisions are linked to their interest in food issues and how they think food consumption ties to their well-being," Cary Funk, the associate director of research at Pew Research Center and the lead author of the report on the survey, said in a statement.

Based on the survey respondents' answers to other questions, the researchers also concluded that people's views on food "are not driven by their political attitudes, their level of education, their household income or where they live," Funk said.

For example, roughly equal shares of Republicans and Democrats think that GM foods are worse for a person's health than foods that don't have GM ingredients, according to the survey. And 50 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats think that organic foods have health benefits beyond those of conventionally grown foods.

Age, however, did appear to play a role in people's views: Adults under 50 were more likely than older adults to say that organic produce is healthier than conventionally grown produce, the researchers found. And 48 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 thought that GM foods are worse for health than non-GM foods, compared with 29 percent of adults over 65 who think this, according to the survey.

Is there anything Americans agree on?

Americans aren't completely divided, the researchers found. Indeed, 72 percent of Americans said that healthy eating habits are very important for a long and healthy life, and 71 percent said that getting enough exercise is very important for a long and healthy life, according to the survey.

But the majority of Americans feel like they aren't meeting their healthy-eating goals: 58 percent said that on most days, they feel like they should eat healthier, the researchers found. [6 Easy Ways to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables]

In addition, depending on a person's level of science knowledge, it may be difficult to know how to eat healthy, the researchers found. For example, among those with low science knowledge, half said "the core ideas of eating healthy are pretty well understood," while 47 percent said that conflicting information from news reports made it difficult to know how to eat healthy.

Among those with high science knowledge, however, 92 percent said that the core ideas of healthy eating were well understood, the researchers found.

Can food scientists help?

The researchers also looked into how Americans view food scientists.

They found "that Americans have limited trust in scientists connected with GM food," Funk said. Only 19 percent of Americans think that scientists understand the health effects of GM foods "very well," the survey found. Another 44 percent said they think that scientists understand these health effects "fairly well," and 35 percent think that scientists either do not understand these effects at all or "not too well."  

However, although only 35 percent of Americans said that they trust scientists to give the public complete and accurate information about the health effects of GM foods, 60 percent say they think scientists should play a major role in food-policy issues, the survey found.

The findings were based on surveys completed by 1,480 adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia between May 10 and June 6, 2016. Surveys were either mailed or emailed to the participants.

Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.