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Exploring attitudes to GM food

Fruit market
Published: November 2009

Aim

In 2009 the Food Standards Agency (FSA) asked us to deliver research on public attitudes to genetically modified (GM) foods. We achieved this through conducting qualitative interviews and deliberative workshops with a group of people who had taken part in a previous NatCen British Social Attitudes Survey (BSA).

Findings

Building on existing FSA research findings, this research project explored why and how people hold particular views about GM food. We gained insight into how people weigh up the risks and benefits associated with GM; and better understood the circumstances in which people change their views.

We found that the public’s attitude to GM food is complex and unpredictable.

Four sets of attitudes to GM food were expressed by participants.

Participants who held positive attitudes discussed the perceived benefits of GM food for the advancement of human society. Positive attitudes were shaped by a range of factors, including:  

  • GM food was seen as ordinary and unthreatening, and participants expressed trust in scientific development, food production and regulatory systems.
  • Food choices were influenced by pragmatic concerns such as cost, time available to buy and prepare food, and shopping facilities.

Participants who had concerns about GM foods focussed on perceived health and environmental risks. Concerns were raised about the long term safety of GM foods and participants were sceptical about the effectiveness of regulation of new food technologies.

Other participants were undecided about their views on GM food, citing that they lacked personal knowledge on the subject, or that there was lack of evidence either way. A final group of participants did not hold a view on GM foods because they felt that it was a personal decision for individual consumers or GM food was not a priority for them.

Following an initial interview, participants attended a group discussion and were presented with information about GM foods. During the course of the research attitudes to GM foods developed in two ways. For one group of participants a more positive attitude to GM foods developed. Other participants did not feel their overall attitudes to GM foods had changed, but views were felt to have become more nuanced by having an awareness of the complexities of the debate on GM foods.  

Methodology

Research objectives were met using a three-stage design.

  • First, 30 in-depth interviews were conducted with BSA respondents in two geographical areas.
  • Then two workshops were held with 20 of the initial participants to open up discussion and understanding about what shapes attitudes to  GM food.
  • The last stage included six follow-up interviews with people who had attended the workshop to get their feedback on the research process.

Read the report