Living standards shape public opinion on genetically modified food

In the journal Food Quality and Preference, Sebastian Levi uses machine learning to analyse attitudes toward GMOs.

Agricultural biotechnology has been a subject of heated public debate in recent years. The development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has raised concerns about food safety and sparked distrust among consumers. At the same time, improving crops and livestock through genetic technology could help solve a major public policy issue: food insecurity in middle-and low-income countries.

New research by Sebastian Levi, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Hertie School’s Centre for Sustainability, finds that opinions towards genetically modified food are determined less by individual trust or education, but rather by the societal benefits people receive from agricultural biotechnology.

The research is featured in his paper, “Living standards shape individual attitudes on genetically modified food around the world”, to be published in January 2022 in the journal Food Quality and Preference, and already available online at Science Direct. Levi analyses individual attitudes of more than 150,000 people living in 142 different countries, using “explainable AI” – a branch of methods that estimate machine learning models so their output is understandable for people.

Overall, people tend to be most optimistic about genetically modified food if they live in countries with low standards of living, a high prevalence of undernourishment, and a strong economic dependency on agricultural output, Levi finds. Societal conditions not only affect the overall national sentiment toward gene-edited food, but also determine which groups welcome bio-edited crops and livestock. In rich countries, mostly highly educated urban men tend to trust GMOs, but the opposite is true for low- and middle-income countries. Here, women, people living in rural areas and those with little education are most supportive of agricultural biotechnology – likely because many of these people work in agriculture or are disproportionally affected by food insecurity, he writes.

These observations can help to better understand the intentions that inform regulatory decisions on GMO products across different countries. "Consumers and voters in low-income countries hope that agricultural biotechnology will increase food security and are much less concerned with government regulation than people in high-income countries,” Levi writes. “Future regulation on genetically modified food should therefore be as efficient as possible to allow GM food to improve food security in these vulnerable economies, but also effective enough to maintain and increase trust in biosafety across all populations."

Find the article on Science Direct here.


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