Can the White House Convince Americans that GMOs Are Safe?

The administration wants to improve public confidence in regulation of GM foods.

The White House has a message for America: There's nothing dangerous about genetically modified food that makes it to your dinner plate.

Even though the vast majority of scientists say that GMOs are safe to eat, genetic modification remains highly controversial. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January, 57 percent of Americans fear that genetically modified foods are unsafe. And unlike debates over climate change, where skepticism of the science tends to be most prominent in conservative circles, some of the loudest criticism leveled at GMOs has come from the left.

The White House is taking steps that may reassure a wary public. It announced Thursday that the federal government will improve transparency, coordination, and predictability surrounding GMO regulation in a bid to bolster confidence in the regulatory system. That effort might be enough to change some minds—but only if a skeptical public pays attention.

"If you have better regulation and greater transparency, then I think that will help consumers feel more comfortable with this," said Greg Jaffe, the director of biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy nonprofit.

Winning over hearts and minds won't be easy. The divide between public distrust of GMOs and scientific endorsement of their safety runs deeper than disagreement over the reality of man-made climate change and whether the U.S. should increase fracking, the same survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found.

Any successful effort to bridge that gap would need to confront the root causes of the divide. And according to Jayson Lusk, a professor of agriculture at Oklahoma State University, fear over GMOs is largely fueled by a lack of understanding of genetic modification—not concern about government regulation.

"It is rare that 'improper government oversight' is the key issue here," Lusk said, adding that "distrust of anything that seems 'unnatural,' a general aversion to unfamiliar food," confusion over the technology, misinformation, and a failure to understand potential benefits are key factors driving public fear over GMOs.

GMO labeling tends to see more widespread support among Democrats than Republicans. So if the White House ever decides to enact mandatory GMO labeling, that would likely boost the administration's credibility with the left.

But research indicates that there is not much difference between conservative and liberal opinion at the grassroots level when it comes to the question of "are GMOs safe to eat?" As a result, administration action to improve the transparency of regulation is unlikely to have an outsized partisan impact on consumer confidence.

It is unclear exactly what the outcome of the federal review of the regulatory process will be. But in the process of improving transparency and predictability, the administration hopes that Americans will gain a better understanding of how the government regulates GM foods.

"The complexity of the array of regulations ... can make it difficult for the public to understand how the safety of biotechnology products is evaluated," John Holdren, a senior advisor to the president on science and technology, and several other top administration officials wrote in a White House blog post.

Increased transparency may win the trust of some Americans. But it is unlikely to be a cure-all for public fears over GMO safety.

"Hiding the presence of genetically modified ingredients does not boost public confidence," said Scott Faber, the senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that supports GM labeling. "But the devil is in the details. People are concerned about the process we have in place, so simply having a more transparent process may not be enough."