During a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver examined the shouty, eternally red-faced conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and highlighted some of the ways he markets his InfoWars line of nutraceuticals. In one segment from his show, Jones seemed to be completely confused by organics, GMOs, and biology. "It's organically based, but it's not technically organic," he said. "This stuff is lab made, it's made from organic sources but the bacteria is GMO, I'll just tell you that up front. It's not like the super high-tech stuff. It's a bacteria that has been bred [...] that's how the Japanese do it. It's bio-identical."
Far be it for me—or anyone, really—to defend Jones for any reason, but he's not alone; a lot of American are equally perplexed by food labels, nutrition information, and when it comes down to it, aren't exactly sure what GMOs are at all. Researchers at Michigan State University recently surveyed 1,059 Americans as part of its Food Literacy and Engagement Poll, which aims to gauge consumer knowledge about food access and sustainability. The results showed that there's a reasonably large number of us who are just pretending to know the basic implications of what we throw in our shopping carts.
"More than one-third of Americans do not know that foods with no genetically modified ingredients contain genes," two of the poll's authors wrote on The Conversation. "For the record, all foods contain genes, and so do all people." (And, in addition to the 37 percent of people who think that non-GMO food is completely gene-less, 38 percent of respondents believed that their knowledge of the global food system was higher than that of the average person.)
The researchers were understandably concerned by some of the results (you can almost hear them taking a heavy sigh as they reported that 48 percent of Americans do not seek out information about how their food was grown or produced), especially their attitude toward—and fear of—genetic modification.
"I'm not very surprised with the results of the survey," co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum told MUNCHIES. "While many of us consume genetically modified foods daily, the science community has not done a great job of explaining what they are and why they are necessary to feed our burgeoning population, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Even though the Food and Drug Administration has said that GM foods are safe, large and vocal advocacy groups stoke public fears and influence consumers away from support and adoption."
Almost half (46 percent) of those surveyed said they were either "not sure" how often they consumed genetically modified foods or believed that they rarely or never did, even though GMOs are present in around 75 percent of all packaged foods on US grocery store shelves.
After the researchers presumably banged their foreheads against their desks, they took a deep breath and suggested that part of the problem is that Americans are reluctant to listen to or seek answers from food scientists, instead getting their information from less reliable sources.
"When a study is published in the scientific literature, media often feeds us sound bites rather than substantive information, alternatively demonizing or celebrating our favorite foods like butter and chocolate," Kirshenbaum said. "And on top of that, our friends and family—the people we trust most—as well as celebrities are now selling us sponsored 'health' foods on Facebook and Instagram. There's a lot of noise out there about what to eat and topics from nutrition to GMOs are complex and difficult to drill down to a single take home message for consumers."
That's partially why Kirshenbaum is involved with Our Table, a newly launched initiative at Michigan State that hopes to foster ongoing dialogue and discussions between farmers and scientists, consumers and policy experts. She hopes that it will be a source of information—real information—that will better educate consumers when it comes to making decisions about what they eat and why. And, hopefully, it will lead to slightly less mortifying results for next year's Food Literacy and Engagement poll.
"I don't expect a marked differences in public opinion in a single year, but the baseline data from our inaugural poll will allow us to find out how attitudes are changing," she said. "I think that a key, but often overlooked part of the solution to science illiteracy generally, is taking the time to listen. We—the science community—often talk at audiences telling them what we think they need to know. That's not going to succeed. It needs to be a conversation."
A conversation that probably shouldn't include Alex Jones.