I don’t trust surveys or petitions (really a type of survey). I’ve taken graduate courses on survey design and still, I can never look survey results or petitions without some level of skepticism. In my opinion and experience, surveys are best utilized when they deal with a very targeted subject matter, and presented to an audience who knows that subject matter well. Petitions are best taken with several grains of salt.
First, survey results and petition signatures are far too dependent upon how the question or issue is worded and presented, and to who it is presented. Its way too easy to design surveys and petitions that, intentionally or unintentionally, influence the response. The comedians Penn and Teller do a good job of demonstrating how this can be done in this YouTube segment dealing with the toxin dihydrogen monoxide.
Second, survey results and petition signatures often reflect not only the opinion of the survey population, but of their general knowledge, or lack thereof, of the subject matter. Take for instance the survey that questioned people on their preference for DNA-free food. While a bit tongue-in-cheek, the survey revealed that 28% of respondents (sample size of 2239) stated they would pay 50% more for food that is DNA-free. You could argue that this survey shows that people want meals that are free of DNA. A more compelling argument would be that we need to seriously overhaul our science education programs*.
I bring all this up because long-time anti-biotech activists and yogic flying instructor Jeffrey Smith has been pushing the new administration for mandatory labeling of GMO foods, and has been circulating an online petition. His main justification for this? He describes a survey which indicates that 90% of Americans favor labeling of GMO foods. I have not seen this particular survey (Smith does not provide a reference). Regardless, I have yet to see a survey on this topic that could be considered scientific, and where the questions could not be considered to be “leading”. Further, I know for a fact that nowhere near 90% of Americans have been exposed to enough serious debate on this topic to have an informed opinion. Few are aware of the following facts:
- The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does require labeling where the GMO food contains a known allergen or is nutritionally different than non-GMO counterparts.
- To date, FDA has not determined that any approved GMO food differs significantly from their not-GMO counterpart.
- Enforcement of GMO labeling would likely to be a significant burden on government agencies and taxpayers.
- Organic labeling under USDA’s National Organic Program provides an option for those who want to avoid food containing GMOs.
I suspect that the results of Smith’s survey would have been quite different if those surveyed were aware of these four simple facts.
Smith’s suggestion that FDA change a long standing labeling policy based on an unidentified survey is sheer political theater. Surveys and Petitions serve a legitimate, but very limited function – to create discussion. Policy formation takes in-depth research, expert opinion and a lot of critical thinking by seasoned policy makers. The issue of GM food labeling has already taken place in the US. The consensus and determination is that labeling of all GMO foods makes about as much sense as banning water or ensuring DNA-free school lunches.
* For the approximately 28% of readers who apparently will not get why, please note that DNA is present in all living things, and almost all food (especially the healthy suff). Each cell contains about 9 feet of DNA and every meal approximately 93,205 miles of DNA.