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Published June 06, 2014, 11:45 AM

Survey shows Americans mostly positive about modern agriculture

American consumers are mostly confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply and have a positive view of modern agriculture, a recent survey shows.

By: Tracy Frank, Forum News Service

FARGO, N.D. — American consumers are mostly confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply and have a positive view of modern agriculture, a recent survey shows.

They are also not overly concerned about foods grown using biotechnology, but that concern is growing.

The International Food Information Council Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization based in Washington, D.C., used the survey, “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology,” to gauge consumer knowledge and awareness of biotechnology safety, benefits and labeling, as well as sustainability and emerging technologies.

IFIC, which is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries, has been conducting surveys since 1997 and is also using the 2014 survey to understand consumer attitudes and opinions regarding food biotechnology and to gauge purchase behavior and determine what information and sources best help consumers make informed food decisions.

“We found that confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply is consistently high,” said Lindsey Loving, IFIC senior director of Food Ingredient & Technology Communications, during a webcast release of the survey information. “Consumers have a positive view of modern agriculture and believe biotechnology can play a role in improving multiple aspects of sustainability.”

Most Americans, 71 percent, have heard something about food biotechnology, and this year more consumers are aware that foods produced through biotechnology are currently in the supermarket, the survey showed.

Of those surveyed, 28 percent say they do not have favorable impressions of food biotechnology. That number is up 8 percent since 2012. Millennials have more favorable impressions of food biotechnology than those ages 35 and over. Of those ages 18 to 34 surveyed, 38 percent were favorable, while only 25 percent of older Americans supported it.

Biotechnology is the manipulation of biological systems or processes for industrial or other purposes. It includes genetically modifying plants, like corn, to be more resistant to pests and to produce higher yields.

Since people have been modifying plants for thousands of years through breeding and selection, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uses the term “genetically engineered,” to distinguish plants that have been modified using modern biotechnology from those modified through traditional breeding.

Foods from genetically engineered plants, the U.S. Department of Agriculture states, must meet the same safety requirements as foods from traditionally bred plants.

Some consumer groups want food companies to label whether their products are made with genetically modified organisms. The FDA supports voluntary labeling, but it’s not required.

Last month, Vermont became the first state to mandate labeling foods made with genetically modified organisms. More than 20 other states are considering mandating labeling genetically modified foods and more than 60 other countries require genetically engineered foods to be labeled.

Food and agriculture industries say their products are proven safe and mandatory labels will imply they are unsafe, confuse consumers and increase costs, according to the story. Some scientists say more independent research is needed into the safety of genetically modified foods.

The IFIC survey shows that 63 percent of consumers support the current FDA labeling policy for foods produced using biotechnology, which only requires labeling when biotechnology substantially changes the food’s nutritional content or composition, or when a potential safety issue, such as a food allergen, is identified. That number is down 5 percent since 2012.

Of those surveyed, 8 percent wanted additional nutritional information, 5 percent wanted more ingredient information, and 4 percent wanted information about biotechnology or related terms, while 74 percent could not think of any additional information they would like to see added to food labels.

“Comparatively, when we look at interest in adding additional information to the label among moms, we see that four out of 10 moms would want more information on the label, which is significantly higher than non-moms,” Loving said, adding that they primarily want more nutritional and ingredient information.

The majority say they would likely purchase foods modified by biotechnology for various nutrition and health-related benefits such as being made with oils to provide more healthful fats, reducing the potential for carcinogens and being protected from insect damage and requiring fewer pesticide applications.

“When consumers understand the potential benefits that technology in food production can have for both people and the planet, they can get behind it,” said Marianne Smith Edge, IFIC senior vice president of Nutrition and Food Safety.

The food safety concerns those surveyed most mentioned are disease or contamination and handling or preparation. Next were preservatives and chemicals.

More than seven in 10 consumers say modern agriculture can be sustainable, produce high-quality foods and produce nutritious foods. More than two-thirds say modern agriculture produces safe foods. Slightly more than half say modern farms are still primarily family-run.

More than 95 percent of farms today are family owned, and those farms are passed down from generation to generation, according to Suzanne Wolf, communications director for the North Dakota Soybean Council.

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