Study finds that touting safety of GMOs just riles those who are opposed

Professor of Marketing Naomi Mandel tackled a polarizing issue in her latest research on genetically modified organisms.

“We started out by asking, ‘How can consumers be persuaded to accept genetically modified foods?'" she says.

“It’s a really polarizing issue. About 50% of Americans don’t think GMOs are safe and 50% think they are safe.

“We wanted to look at these people who had polarized attitudes and try different messages to see which message would be the most persuasive.”

It turned out that trying to change the minds of people who strongly believe GMOs are not safe did not work.

“The message backfired,” she says. “They were less willing to accept GMOs when we told them that GMOs were safe.”

Mandel’s research was recently published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.

Genetically modified foods, first approved in the United States more than 20 years ago, have had their DNA manipulated through genetic engineering in a lab. Scientists do this to create crops that are resistant to pests or drought or to increase nutritional value. Some people object to genetically modified foods because of concerns over lack of testing, crossbreeding with nonmodified plants, the potential for toxicity, and allergies or harm to the environment.

There are major players on both sides of the issue, according to Mandel’s paper. Many U.S. biotechnology companies, food manufacturers, government regulators such as the Food and Drug Administration, and nonprofit groups such as the Cornell Alliance of Science support genetically modified foods. Those who don’t take a supportive stance include the European Union, the grocery chain Whole Foods, and the nonprofit Greenpeace.

Mandel’s study was timely because in 2017 the FDA received a $4.5 million grant to promote agricultural biotechnology, including genetically modified foods.

In the study, Mandel and her co-author did three online surveys with a total of about 900 participants who were divided into four groups based on their attitudes toward genetically modified foods: strongly pro-GMO, weakly pro-GMO, weakly anti-GMO, and strongly anti-GMO.

“We started out by giving them a safety message, something that is very typically used in messages you would see from the FDA or the USDA,” she explains. The message was: “Independent researchers and international scientific agencies have found that GM foods do not pose any risks to human health and that they are as safe as those foods produced through traditional breeding.”

“We measured their acceptance and we found that for people who already were pro-GMO, it didn’t change their acceptance but for people who were anti-GMO, it depended on whether they had strong or weak preexisting attitudes,” she says.

“People who are weak anti-GMO, who haven’t really made up their minds yet, any kind of persuasive message works. By telling that GMOs are safe, we can convince them,” she says.

But people who were strongly against GMOs were even more opposed to them after the message, proven by their stated willingness to pay more for foods made without genetically modified ingredients.

“The explanation is that people who are strongly anti-GMO have these pre-existing attitudes that GMOs are unsafe and risky, and by even bringing up the issue of safety, it activates these attitudes,” she explains.

They also looked at what kind of message would persuade strongly anti-GMO consumers.

“We found that messages that emphasize the benefits of GMOs instead of safety and risk are much more effective because they don’t activate the thoughts about risk,” Mandel says.

The respondents saw an infographic that showed that genetically modified foods had a better nutritional profile, were more affordable, and don’t spoil as quickly.

“Showing the benefits to consumers: Those types of messages were much more persuasive to strongly anti-GMO consumers,” she says.

Mandel sees implications for other divisive issues.

“Recently I’ve become very interested in all kinds of political polarization, which seems to be a feature of the American environment right now, and what we can do to make people less polarized,” she says.

“I suspect our findings can apply to a lot of different polarizing issues. If you think of vaccinations or even abortion or immigration, I would say it’s generally better to take a back door when it comes to persuasive messages.”

She’s seen polarization play out in the vaccine issue.

“What I’ve noticed is that pro-vaccine people are very loud and calling names and telling people who are against vaccines that they’re stupid and anti-science,” she says. “That’s not going to persuade anybody.

“Probably a better way to do it is to calmly discuss the benefits.”

Mandel and her co-author say they faced backlash over their study.

“We’re starting with the assumption that GMOs are safe — the ones that have been rigorously tested and reviewed by the FDA,” she says.

“There are so many (people) who are anti-GMO, and they questioned why we would do this research.

“We had one reviewer who said GMOs are not safe and that we’re working for the dark side by persuading people to accept them,” she says.

“I don’t think it’s our role to decide whether GMOs are safe or not. As marketing researchers, we took that part for granted given that the FDA has approved them and they have a large grant to gain consumer acceptance.”

This story was originally published on ASU Now May 31, 2019.

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