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Growing consumer concerns point to need for GMO transparency

4 min read


(Photo: Flickr user photologue_np)

Consumers’ concerns about genetically-modified foods are growing in the wake of GMO labeling efforts in some states and Whole Foods’ decision to label them in its stores, making GMO transparency.

Four in 10 people say they avoid or reduce GMOs in their daily diets, up from 29% in 2010, and they are demographically indistinguishable from the general population. The differences among them have more to do with their aspirations around food and beverage quality and production. For example, 87% of GMO-averse consumers are organic users.

Consumer’ aversion to GMOs does not mean they understand them.

“I don’t really know what the ‘O’ [in GMO] stands for,” one consumer told The Hartman Group in its new special report, GMO Perceptions, Knowledge and Labeling: A Consumer Perspective. “But they make me think of things that are altered away from the normal. They sound bad, like aspartame.”

They also do not necessarily know how to avoid GMOs.

Only 9% of GMO-averse consumers understood that organic certified products do not contain GMOs. And fewer than 2% of the most knowledgeable GMO-averse consumers could name the top three GMO crops in the U.S. food supply: corn, soy and (sugar) beets. In fact, 20% of those knowledgeable consumers thought wheat was a GMO crop in the U.S. food supply.

Almost half of GMO-averse consumers are unaware of the dominant non-GMO label, which reads, “Non-GMO Project Verified.”

Health is the primary reason people give for avoiding GMOs, and their top concerns involve transparency: They’re concerned about the impact on their health and well-being, they want to know what’s in their food and they don’t want to support companies that use GMOs.

But people also do not point to a specific health issue or disease risk from GMO consumption. Their concerns are more amorphous: “It’s not hybridization. It’s injecting pesticides or squid ink or scorpion venom into food.” And: “We’re basically their guinea pigs. When you mess with food and don’t know what it will do, you’re taking a big risk with our lives.”

Amid comments like those, which come as other consumers say GMOs are unnatural and manipulated for questionable purposes and that they feel anxious about the health and environmental consequences, the most forward-looking action companies can take is to be transparent.

Communicating with customers about GMOs will go a long way toward alleviating their concerns.

People have not latched onto a narrative around GMOs, like they did regarding organic and pesticides decades ago. They also do not have a clear understanding about GMO production or how to identify which foods have GMOs. But long term, non-GMO ingredients are likely to become a marketing lever for conventional and non-organic natural foods and beverages, especially in categories without other powerful quality markers such as local or artisan.

Companies that get ahead of concerns about health and transparency regarding GMOs will build early trust around a subject that’s increasingly important to consumers.

To read more about consumers’ growing concerns about GMOs, order The Hartman Group’s new special report, GMO Perceptions, Knowledge and Labeling: A Consumer Perspective.  

CEO Laurie Demeritt and The Hartman Group’s ethnographers explore the subtle complexities of how consumers live, shop and use products – and how to apply that understanding in ways that lead to purchase. For more about The Hartman Group, visit the website or contact Blaine Becker, Senior Director of Marketing at [email protected] or 425-452-0818.


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