As I scrolled through Facebook the other day, I saw a link to an article headlined “Over 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.” I chuckled and clicked the link, thinking I’d be heading to The Onion. Imagine my surprise when The Washington Post loaded in my browser instead. The article’s lead made my stomach sink: “A recent survey by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics finds that over 80 percent of Americans support ‘mandatory labels on foods containing DNA,’ about the same number as support mandatory labeling of GMO foods ‘produced with genetic engineering.'”
As I read on, I thought that surely this study was flawed — they must have surveyed a non-representative sample, or the question must have been written poorly. I clicked over the survey’s results (linked above), where I learned that the survey was given to a pool of 1000 people. The pool was designed to reflect the demographics of the U.S. The method was sound, so I thought the problem must have been the wording of the question. Wrong again. “Do you support or oppose mandatory labels on foods containing DNA?” is a pretty straightforward question.
DNA: It’s already inside you! (image source)
The study wasn’t flawed. The results weren’t shady. Apparently, 80 percent of Americans simply do not know what DNA is. Almost the same percentage of people said they also support mandatory labeling of GMOs. The study also asked respondents if they had “read any books about food and agriculture in the past year.” Eighty-one percent of people said “no.” Three percent said, “I don’t know.” And yet, these same people are anti-GMO and anti-DNA. People: acronyms do not automatically make a food dangerous. Please, please educate yourself before you decide that something is evil.
I’m a huge advocate for knowing what is in your food, for not consuming the weird, potentially dangerous substances that frequently make their way into processed foods. But you must actually know what it is that you’re consuming. You can’t assume that some substance on the ingredient list is healthy for you just because the manufacturers claim it is, and you also can’t assume that something is dangerous just because you’ve never heard of it (and maybe you didn’t pay attention in seventh-grade science class). You cannot assume that because it has an acronym or a scientific-sounding name, or because the Food Babe says it’s icky, that something should be banned.
This type of ignorance is harming American agriculture, an industry taken for granted by far too many Americans. You may not want to admit it, but the notion of the small, local, organic farm, with the farmer who raises a little bit of everything and sells his wares at a cute little booth at the farmer’s market, is just not realistic to feed the entire country. The population of the world is continuously growing, and the population of farmers is slowly but steadily decreasing (see 2014’s Census of Agriculture). What worked in 1820 is not going to work forever.
If we want to keep eating (all of us, not just those of us who can afford the cute farmer’s market booths), we must be open to innovation. Should we view innovation with a healthy dose of skepticism? Of course. But it must be educated skepticism. As consumers, we must be informed, jumping neither to acceptance nor rejection without first doing our research. Our health and the health of our country depend on it.