The most recent figures indicate that 81 percent of all the soybeans grown in the United States are biotech, as well as 40 percent of all the corn.
Yet ordinary Americans–the people who consume the products we grow on our farms–don’t know much about genetically modified crops. Only 24 percent think they’ve ever eaten biotech food, according to a new poll from the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology. An astonishing 58 percent of survey respondents say they haven’t ever put biotech foods in their mouths.
These numbers are a slight improvement from two years ago, when 19 percent said they had consumed biotech food and 61 percent said they hadn’t.
Both sets of figures, however, speak to a tremendous lack of information.
There can’t be more than a handful of Americans who have never tasted biotech foods at all. It’s estimated that over 70 percent of all supermarket items contain biotech ingredients, from beverages that contain corn syrup as a sweetener to virtually everything that you buy in a box.
It would be hard to avoid biotech foods even if people were trying to steer clear of them–and most people aren’t – because they have so much faith in a federal regulatory system that’s designed to keep their food safe.
One of the ironies of our food regulations is that people have so much confidence in them that they don’t feel it necessary to learn intricate details about the ways in which their foods are prepared. And because biotechnology is fundamentally about a process rather than a product, Americans assume–correctly–that the foods displayed on their grocery-store shelves are perfectly healthy.
But these figures also reveal that, until now, most of biotechnology’s appeal has been to farmers, not consumers. We farmers know why biotech is good – It lets us grow more with less work. Our yields are up. It’s environmentally safe. We don’t have to walk our bean fields a gazillion times in the summer heat, hand-pulling the weeds.
Yet consumers hardly see any of this. Since when has a food shopper bought a certain kind of product because it came from high-yield acreage? Granted, higher yields can mean better prices for consumers, but ultimately their choice is based on cost rather than production practices. People are mostly interested in their food tasting good, being safe and reasonably priced.
The bottom line is consumers don’t know much about biotech because biotech has been sold as a benefit to producers, not consumers.
And that’s about to change. The next generation of biotech food will be driven almost entirely by its appeal to consumers. We’re going to hear about foods that are made heart-healthy through genetic modification. We’re going to grow crops that will help fight diseases and even produce medicines.
Right now, a lot of people seem to be wary of biotech food because they consider it “unnatural.” The enemies of biotechnology, after all, have given the foods we grow a ridiculous label – Frankenfoods.
Let’s lay aside the obvious point that just about everything our farms produce is “unnatural” in the sense that our crops have been crossbred over the ages into plants that don’t much resemble their “natural” forebears.
In the future, though, people will seek out biotech foods because they will view them as improvements over what was available in the past–just as big and juicy tomatoes are an improvement over the tiny red berries that our ancestors encountered in the wild.
Biotechnology will continue to benefit farmers, such as the drought-tolerant crops now in the development pipeline.
Yet biotechnology is about to take a big step forward with the American public. In a few years, everybody will know they’re consuming biotech foods. And they’ll be glad about it.