GM Foods OK in US
It seems ironic that in the United States, a country obsessed with food safety and prone to whimsical dietary fads, confidence in genetically modified foods is very high. There is no talk of 'Frankenstein' Food. Nor is there the irrational fear about so-called 'tinkering with nature' which occupies the mind of so many British consumers. Instead, the large majority of Americans see GM foods as having many benefits, both now and in the future.
A recent study (March 1999) commissioned by the International Food Information Council shows that 77% of Americans would be likely to buy products that had been genetically engineered to resist insect damage, resulting in less use of pesticides. Nearly two thirds said that they would be likely to purchase such products even if they had been engineered only to taste better or stay fresh longer.
Most Americans also have faith in their government's labelling policies for biotech foods, even though these only apply to engineered foods which have been significantly changed. Looking to the future, 78% thought that biotechnology would provide benefits for American families within the next five years.
So why the big difference between them and us Europeans? Three factors may explain it. Firstly, activist groups in the US have much less of an impact on the general population than elsewhere. The recent scare-mongering press in Britain was largely orchestrated by Greenpeace - an organisation seeking to further its environmentalist agenda by spreading totally unfounded stories about the health risks of GM foods.
Secondly, Americans tend to put more faith in scientists than we do, especially when they are attached to prestigious government or university centres. If the scientists say that there is no risk from eating GM foods, they tend to believe them. Here, however, the scientific pros and cons are often overlooked in the hysterical media hype which surrounds the issues. Which brings us to the third factor. In Britain we have 10 national newspapers all competing with each other for readership, while in America the print media is much more regionally focused. Editors and journalists in the UK are quite open about the fact that they will print what their readers want to read in order to maintain their circulation figures, even if this means casting balanced reporting to the wind. As a result we have seen both the Express and the Independent trying to outdo the Guardian, the paper which first championed the Pusztai debacle with their campaigns for 'Safe Food' and the 'Say No to GM Foods' logos.
Fear sells newspapers, and the British press have found the perfect 3-step formula for engineering and then commercially exploiting public fears. First they 'plant' the fear with a series of scare-stories. Then they commission a poll which - surprise, surprise - shows that people are scared, worried, anxious, etc. about the product in question. Then they mount a moralistic, high-profile campaign to ban the product, claiming that they are merely reflecting existing public concern and that "people's anxieties must be respected". This formula is highly effective, and allows newspapers to profit from fears they have created, while claiming the moral high-ground. In terms of social responsibility, this practice is on a par with shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theatre.