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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – More than three-quarters of Americans would accept the release of genetically modified mosquitoes to reduce the risk of the Zika virus, but less than half accept genetic modification (GM) of animals, crops and produce, according to Purdue Education.

Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics, and Wally Tyner, Professor of Agricultural Economics with James and Lois Ackerman, led the study to understand attitudes toward genetic engineering in the wake of increased coverage of the Zika virus last year. The results suggest that people are far more accepting of genetic changes that benefit human health, but are still somewhat wary of changes to food.

“Whenever you have a newly perceived health risk, technology is asked to solve the problem. When you think of the Ebola virus, everyone would say, “Where’s an Ebola vaccine?” They wanted technology to minimize the risk, ”said Widmar. “Eating is an everyday choice. In a way, I can understand why people may be more careful about what they are ingesting continuously. “

Data also shows that acceptance of genetic modifications may be related to gender, education, income, and awareness of genetically modified technologies.

Zika, a virus that spreads primarily through mosquito bites, can cause serious birth defects, including microcephaly and fetal brain defects. The virus was particularly prevalent in Brazil during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and mosquito carriers have been reported in parts of Florida and Texas.

Mechanisms developed to fight viruses include the release of genetically engineered mosquitoes that reproduce with females to produce eggs that will not hatch or offspring that will die before reaching sexual maturity. Widmar and Tyner wanted to evaluate public opinion about the technologies and understand what drives acceptance of some genetic changes, but not others.

The results are based on 964 surveyed Americans with the aim of selecting respondents who match the 2014 census estimates for age, gender, income, education, and location. The margin of error was about 3 percent and the results were published in PLoS One magazine.

The survey found that 78 percent would support the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in the United States. The acceptance of the genetic modification is 44 percent for animal production; 49 percent for grain production; 48 percent for fruit and vegetable production; 62 percent for human medicine; and 68 percent for human health.
Men were more likely to accept genetic changes in all categories. Younger respondents also accepted higher rates in all areas except for human health reasons, where there was no significant difference between age groups.

Higher income groups were more likely to agree with the genetic modification of grain, fruit and vegetables and animal production than lower income groups. Those with a college degree were more likely to accept the genetic change.

Finally, the results show that those who are aware of the genetically modified mosquito technology are more likely to accept the genetic modification in all areas examined.

Widmar said she expected respondents to be more likely to accept genetic changes for health and medicine, and she suspects this may be related to how these technologies were released. In the mosquito case, Zika was all the news, as was coverage of companies seeking government approval to release their modified insects for testing. Americans were likely to be less informed about the releases of genetically modified crops after they were already a significant part of the food chain.

“The perception of choice is important,” said Widmar. “If you needed it to stay healthy, you would probably use it. But if you feel like you have received GMOs and are later informed about it, this could upset you. “

Tyner said there could be a lesson in the data for those looking to develop future GMO technologies. While GMO crops have often been lauded for reducing inputs and costs for producers, people may be more receptive to information about how the same crops enable less toxic pesticides to be used.

“If we can highlight the health and environmental benefits rather than just focusing on the bottom line, it could have a positive impact on public attitudes towards GMOs,” said Tyner. “If you look back, things might have gone differently if we had the first releases in the medical field rather than the food field.”

Widmar and Tyner plan to continue work on the impact of GMOs on society. Widmar continues to evaluate consumer acceptance and demand for various technologies that affect the human condition through food production and health care.

The study was funded internally from Purdue University discretionary resources.

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