The American people see both benefits and risks in genetically modified foods and crops, with a modest 43 to 38 percent plurality believing the risks outweigh the benefits. But most people admit to not knowing much about GM foods, suggesting the biotech industry could see support erode quickly in the face of any negative coverage.

Just over half of the public has seen, heard or read more than a little about genetically modified foods, with 30 percent saying they had seen “not much” information about it and 22 percent saying they have seen “nothing at all.” The level of awareness is lower today than it was when Harris Interactive last asked these questions in 2000. Then, 57 percent said they had seen, heard or read “a lot” or “some” about GM foods, 10 points higher than those who responded that way this year.

A 43 to 38 percent plurality believes that the risks of GM plants and crops outweigh the benefits, compared to a 48 to 38 percent plurality in 2000. On the positive side, fully 71 percent of the public (up slightly from 66 percent in 2000) believes that, because of GM plants and crops “agricultural production will increase,” and 47 percent (up from 42 percent in 2000) believe that GM crops “will make food less expensive than it would be otherwise.” On the negative side, an almost unchanged 54 percent majority believes that GM crops “will upset the balance of nature and upset the environment.”

And a massive 84 to 13 percent majority (compared to 86 percent to 13 percent in 2000) continues to believe that “the government should require the labeling of all packaged and other food products stating that they include corn, soy or other products which have come from genetically modified crops.”

The biggest change over the last four years is a sharp decline, from 55 to 40 percent, in the proportion of adults who believe it likely that “food based on these new crops will be poisonous or cause diseases.”