You've just been appointed to the Burger King board of directors and you and your fellow directors must decide whether or not to declare the Whopper a GMO-free product. Faced with mostly unsure consumers, the pervasive influence of anti-biotech activists, and the threat of a public relations nightmare, would you take the risk on biotechnology?

For many business leaders, concerned primarily about the bottom line, the answer is likely no. “The violent public opposition to genetically modified foods by activist groups can disrupt business, limit the success of agribusiness and biotechnology firms, and increase costs for all of these groups,” says Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.

Despite widespread adoption by crop producers, consumer acceptance of genetically modified foods is more uncertain. “Many people are so far removed from agriculture that they may have little knowledge of standard agriculture production and breeding practices,” he says.

“Our perception in agriculture and the biotech industry can be quite different than that of consumers,” he says. “The cold, hard reality is that the majority of consumers do not understand what it means for a product to be genetically modified or enhanced. In many cases, people have heard a lot about biotechnology, but they might not have much factual knowledge about it.”

A recent survey by Lusk of Mississippi consumers found that although most people are at least somewhat accepting of biotechnology, fewer are willing to consume a genetically modified product.

The survey was mailed to 4,900 random households in Mississippi. Approximately 14 percent — 640 survey forms — were completed and returned. The survey sample was weighted using U.S. census data to closely match demographic variables such as income, education, and age to population data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Included in the survey packet was a brief information sheet describing genetic engineering and discussing the advent of golden rice, a new food genetic engineered to contain higher amounts of beta-carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A.

The survey found that overall acceptance levels were quite high for genetically modified products, with over 70 percent of respondents finding genetically modified foods acceptable.

“Interestingly, one of the most acceptable biotechnology products was cotton genetically engineered to be pest resistant,” Lusk says. “This product likely was more acceptable than many of the foods because cotton is not eaten, and as such, any fears over food safety were negligible.”

For example, corn genetically modified to be pest resistant was only thought to be acceptable by 71 percent of respondents, whereas 88 percent believed it acceptable for cotton to be genetically modified for pest resistance. This may imply consumers are not averse to biotechnology in general, but have concerns about adverse health consequences from eating genetically engineered products.

According to the survey, consumers consider golden rice, genetically modified for a higher Vitamin A content, and bananas genetically modified to produce vaccines, as the most acceptable genetically modified foods. Consumers likely find these foods more acceptable than others because they provide a direct benefit to the consumer through increased nutrition and health.

“It appears most consumers are accepting of genetically engineered foods. However, consumer acceptance depends on the reason the food was genetically engineered. Consumers are more accepting of foods for which they derived a direct benefit, such as golden rice and bananas genetically engineered to produce vaccines than they are of foods with indirect benefits, such as reducing farm costs,” Lusk says. “In addition, if a product has some perceived benefit for consumers, they're more likely to pay a premium for that product.”

Other factors that influence how much consumers are willing to pay for a product include: the brand name of the product; the information provided on the product label; the consumer's level of knowledge about biotechnology; and any ethical or religious concerns a consumer may have.

Although consumers were more accepting of foods that provided a direct benefit for them, they also had high levels of acceptance of foods that provide perceived indirect benefits. More than 70 percent of respondents found it acceptable for corn to be genetically modified to reduce pesticide use because they perceived an environmental benefit from this application of biotechnology.

To better understand consumers' buying habits, Lusk's survey asked the respondents if they would eat particular genetically modified foods. “Although we found that consumers had high levels of acceptance for most GE foods, they appeared much less willing to consume genetically engineered products,” he says.

“Eighty percent of consumers indicated they would eat a vegetable with an extra gene from the same vegetable, but when an extra gene from a different vegetable was introduced, only 60 percent indicated they would eat the vegetable. As one might expect, as the type of genetic modification became relatively more exotic, consumers were less willing to eat the genetically modified food.”

For example, only 23 percent of the consumers surveyed indicated they would eat a vegetable with an extra gene from a bacteria despite the fact that over 70 percent of consumers believed it acceptable that corn was genetically engineered to be pest resistant.

Survey respondents were also asked to rate how knowledgeable they believe they are about genetically modified foods, and to assess their level of trust in information about genetically engineered foods from various information sources. While the majority of consumers believed they were somewhat knowledgeable of genetic engineering, only 3 percent of consumers believed they were very knowledgeable of genetic engineering.

In the survey, respondents were asked to determine whether several statements about biotechnology were true or false. For the most part, only a minority of respondents answered correctly.

When asked whether the statement, “Ordinary corn does not contain genes but genetically modified corn does,” is true or false, only 33 percent of respondents realized the statement was false. About half of survey respondents correctly identified, “Genetically engineered foods are currently sold in grocery stores,” as a true statement.

According to the survey results, income and education appear to weigh heavily on whether or not a consumer accepts and is willing to eat genetically engineered foods. Consumers with higher incomes and greater education are more likely to be accepting and are more likely to eat genetically engineered foods than lower-income, less-educated consumers.

Consumers who believe they have no knowledge of genetic engineering are more likely to be accepting of genetically engineered foods, but less likely to eat genetically engineered foods than consumers with at least some knowledge, the survey found.

Lusk says, “The advent of biotechnology has generated the ability to alter foods and crops in ways previously unimaginable. However, despite the potential of biotechnology to increase food supply and increase food quality, our research suggests that consumers remain skeptical of the technology.

“Whether U.S. consumers believe the benefits of biotechnology will outweigh risks is an open question. Gaining insight into consumer attitudes toward biotechnology is important for developing foods consumers find acceptable, designing marketing and promotion strategies aimed at increasing consumer demand for genetically engineered foods, and developing effective public policy.”