The biotech industry’s determination to prevent labeling of food products made with genetically modified ingredients looks increasingly absurd in light of a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which found that the majority of Americans want to know more about genetically modified foods—and that when they do learn more, they are more likely to regard biotech food as safe.

The study, part of a new Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology conducted in partnership with the University of Richmond, found that after hearing that more than half of the foods on supermarket shelves in America are genetically modified, one in five of those who initially said GM foods were unsafe changed their minds.

It also found an American public that felt it was being kept in the dark about GM food issues. Only 44 percent of consumers said they had heard either a “great deal” or “some” about GM foods, compared to 54 percent who said they had heard “not much” or “nothing.”

That lack of information leads to considerable uncertainty about the safety of GM foods, with 46 percent saying they don’t know what to think about safety. Those who have a definitive position are split almost evenly on safety, with 29 percent saying they believe GM foods are safe and 25 percent saying they are unsafe.

Consumers agree on two issues, however: 75 percent want to know whether a product contains genetically modified ingredients, and 75 percent would like to see more scientific research into genetically modified foods.

“Despite the heated national debate about agricultural biotechnology, most Americans do not have strong or well-informed opinions about this new technology,” said Mike Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative. “Essentially, public opinion is ‘up for grabs’ because this new technology has moved faster than the public’s ability to fully understand it and its implications.”

In coming months, the Initiative will conduct conferences and workshops, generate papers, and disseminate information on topics related to current issues and concerns about agricultural biotechnology.  Possible topics include the adequacy of the regulatory system to address food safety and environmental concerns about the next generation of agricultural biotechnology products, the potential benefits of such products, economic impacts of the new technology and marketing issues faced by farmers and processors.

The Initiative will simultaneously convene a group representing industry, the public sector, academia, farmers, and environment and consumer groups to identify actions that could help move the debate beyond the current polarized condition and towards consensus.

“Agricultural biotechnology has the potential to be one of the most significant transforming technologies of our era,” noted Rebecca Rimel, president of The Pew Charitable Trusts, “But the risks, benefits and social values ignited by its creation must be thoroughly aired if the public is to have a lasting trust in the technology and the products it produces. The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology was created to give the public the information they need to evaluate a subject as complex and important to our public and environmental health as agricultural biotechnology.”