A recent survey conducted by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that 80.44% of respondents supported a government policy mandating labels on foods containing DNA. Not GMOs. DNA, the genetic material contained in every living thing known to science and practically every food, GMO or otherwise.
Update: In light of responses to the Oklahoma State survey by Ben Lillie and others, I have updated the end of this post with some thoughts on the survey's design and what can be made of its results.
The results smack of satire, but they're real. The Food Demand Survey (FooDs) is an online poll of a representative sample of the U.S. population, conducted every month by Oklahoma State agricultural economist Jayson Lusk and research specialist Susan Murray. The most recent month's survey included a question regarding the institution of government policies concerning food. The results, which you can read in full here, indicate that "a large majority (82%) support mandatory labels on GMOs." What's curious, note Lusk and Murray, is that roughly "the same amount (80%) also support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA."
The results indicate that most Americans do not understand the difference between DNA and a genetically modified food [Ed. Note: I have more to say on this – please see the end of this post]. The former is genetic material essential to life as we know it. The latter is an edible organism, the genetic material of which has been altered for some purpose. One is a building block, the other is the result of a process that alters those building blocks to some end. Given that a label warning of a food's DNA content would be, for all intents and purposes, as meaningless as a label warning of, say, its water content, the survey results reflect an unsettling degree of scientific ignorance in the American population.
The survey results are also symptomatic of chemophobia, an irrational fear of chemicals deftly parodied by a recent episode of Parks and Rec:
Chemophobia is also brilliantly lampooned by the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division, a satirical scare-campaign that rebrands water as the dangerous substance "dihydrogen monoxide." Borrowing on this conceit, Ilya Somin of the Washington Post imagines what a DNA food label might look like:
WARNING: This product contains deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The Surgeon General has determined that DNA is linked to a variety of diseases in both animals and humans. In some configurations, it is a risk factor for cancer and heart disease. Pregnant women are at very high risk of passing on DNA to their children.
The results of Lusk and Murray's survey also highlight a contradiction central to GMO labeling campaigns that would see all genetically modified foods blanket-labeled as "GMOs," regardless of the modification they contain, or the ends toward which they were produced. Prima facie, such initiatives seem like a laudable effort to provide consumers with information. What's ironic, UC Berkeley biologist Mike Eisen explains in a recent blog post, is how little information consumers would actually receive from such a mandate:
If you're worried that the GMOs you're eating might kill you, then you should want to know what specific modification your food contains. I don't think there is any harm in eating food containing the insecticidal "Bt" protein, but even if it were dangerous this would have no bearing on the safety of golden rice.
Similarly, if you are concerned that the transgenic production of plants resistant to certain herbicides encourages the excessive use of herbicides and triggers an herbicide treadmill, then you can boycott crops containing these modifications. But it doesn't make sense to oppose the use of crops engineered to resist diseases, or to produce essential vitamins. Indeed, there are many, like UC Davis's Pam Ronald, who believe that advanced development of GMOs is the best way to advance organic and sustainable agriculture. You may disagree with her, but it should be clear that the effect on agricultural practices varies depending on the specific plant and type of modification being considered.
The Oklahoma State food survey reinforces Eisen's point: A blanket DNA label would be even less informative than a blanket GMO label. And yet, an overwhelming majority of Americans support it, because we have a right to know.
We have a right to know what, exactly?
Over at WaPo, Somin ruminates on what can be made of the Oklahoma State food survey:
It would be a mistake to assume that widespread political and scientific ignorance are the result of "the stupidity of the American voter," as Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber put it. Political ignorance is not primarily the result of stupidity. For most people, it is a rational reaction to the enormous size and complexity of government and the reality that the chance that their vote will have an impact on electoral outcomes is extremely low. The same is true of much scientific ignorance. For many people, there is little benefit to understanding much about genetics or DNA. Most Americans can even go about their daily business perfectly well without knowing that the Earth revolves around the sun. Even the smartest people are inevitably ignorant of the vast majority of information out there. We all have to focus our time and energy on learning that information which is most likely to be instrumentally useful, or at least provide entertainment value. For large numbers of people, much basic political and scientific information doesn't make the cut.
Eisen writes in his blog post that, in supporters of blanket GMO labels, he sees "a lazy and self-satisfied acceptance of an internally incoherent piece of legislation that, rather than giving consumers the 'right to know', will actually protect their desire to know nothing."
I'm not as cynical as Eisen. I like to think of myself as an idealist. But the Oklahoma State survey has dealt a heavy blow that idealism.
When participants of the survey were asked if they had read any books about food and agriculture in the past year." Roughly 81% answered "No," and 3% answered "I don't know." The 16% who answered "Yes" were asked to give the title of the food and agriculture book they had most recently read:
The vast majority of responses were of the form "I don't remember" or "cannot recall". Fast Food Nation, Food Inc., and Omnivore's Dilemma were each mentioned about three times. The Farmer's Almanac and Skinny Bitch were mentioned twice. One respondent mentioned the bible.
These results seem pregnant with significance, but I'm too dispirited to unpack them, at the moment.
Above, I write that "the results indicate that most Americans do not understand the difference between DNA and a genetically modified food." They could be indicative of something else, as well, namely flawed survey design. A number of people have raised this point in the last few days, but none more cogently than Ben Lillie:
This seems like a classic case of priming... On encountering a question that doesn't quite make sense the survey respondents acted under the entirely reasonable (and as it turns out, false) assumption that the researchers aren't trying to fuck with them and answered the question in the context of the rest of the survey—probably assuming it had something to do with GMOs. The fact that the number is so close to the number who support labeling GMOs (80% and 82%) seems to me to strengthen that interpretation. Let's also remember that this is an online survey where we don't know how the respondents were selected. That's certainly far from a fatal problem, but should add to the uncertainty.
In his post, which you can read here, Lillie also torpedoes the idea that 80% of Americans don't know what DNA is, or that 80% of Americans don't know most food contains DNA, or – and, let's be honest, this is the real subtext when a statistic like this gains purchase and spreads on Twitter and Facebook – that 80% of Americans are idiots. In his post, Lillie cites a 2011 survey in which "85 percent of adults recognize that all plants and animals have DNA." In a blog post published Monday, Jayson Lusk (who, you'll recall, conducted the FooDs survey that gave rise to the 80% statistic), cites another study:
Back in 1999 in a paper in Science, Gaskell et al. asked true/false questions of the sort, "Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes while genetically modified tomatoes do." This question has been repeated in many subsequent surveys, and it is often found that many people (incorrectly) say "true".
Lillie concludes that while there is surely a significant number of people who do not understand that there is DNA in food, it's "almost certainly not 80%," proposing that "15% is a better guess." Lusk, for his part, cedes that "the question on DNA labels probably could have been better worded," but says he has "a hard time seeing" how that he "'tricked' respondents or that the question was leading." He continues:
The order of the items was randomized across respondents. As some commentators have pointed out, the question on DNA labels probably could have been better worded. It's worded as saying "mandatory labels on foods containing DNA." So, let's say that you know a lot of foodstuff contains DNA and you want labels on, say, nutritional content, then it could be that you'd say "support" not because you find DNA worrisome but because you want nutritional labels. I doubt that's how most people interpreted the question, but it's a possibility.
Whether you think the percentage of Americans who fail to recognize the DNA content of food is closer to 15% or 80%, the truth is a lot more subtle than "Ha! 4 in 5 Americans are scientifically illiterate!" Nor do the survey results mean, as Lusk points out, "that people are not smart enough to make their own food decisions." The 80% figure makes for a grabby headline (I would know), and, as Lillie notes, "The US Public is incredibly stupid about science" is a very seductive narrative. But the actual situation is more complex than that, and deserves to be treated as such.
The point of my original post was to highlight the potential role of chemophobia in the public's views on food policy and an ironic consequence of blanket GMO lables – something i still maintain is evidenced by the results of Lusk's DNA-in-food survey question. But the response to the survey's findings reminds us to resist drawing facile conclusions from extraordinary results.