Acceptable Trust? The Public Perception of Organizations Involved in Genetically Modified Food

The amount, type, and quality of food we eat often seems to be a matter of personal taste, however, our system of food production circumscribes our choices. This system is neither accidental nor free of controversy. Estimates suggest that three-quarters of all processed foods on American shelves now contain some ingredients derived from genetically modified crops. Although American consumers are largely unaware of genetically modified food (GMF) and even lack clear impressionistic images and feelings about it, they are not without opinions. Debates about GMF have brought about reactions from artists, activists, ethicists and cultural theorists as well as from scientists, regulators, and industry representatives.

At one level, the controversies surrounding GMF are about whether genetic modification poses a risk to human health and the environment. At a deeper level, the discussions are about social and cultural values, political ideals, and the ability of corporations to gain consent from various public audiences. More to the point, sociological issues about the connections between organizations, power, the public, and trust when dealing with emerging technologies are at stake. Because perceptions are dependent on social forms, the construction of trust may be as much about whether actors are trustworthy, as whether actors can induce us to trust.

I focus on the issues of institutional trustworthiness and examine the social implications of who trusts whom about GMF. Using data from a mail survey, I explore which organizations and experts the public trusts regarding GMF, connect those trust judgments to varying trust attributes, and establish determinants of trust. In doing this, I treat trust as an emergent property of a relationship. This allows me to observe the ways trustworthy social actors guide the public through the inherent uncertainty of emerging technologies. Because actors assume social and ethical responsibilities by creating and circulating knowledge about an emerging technology in an institutional competition for public trust, they are a central part of the context within which trust does or does not develop. I conclude by examining the “spiral of trust” that develops between the public and the (dis)trusted actors.


Caron Chess, Lee Clarke (Chair), William K. Hallman, Branden B. Johnson, Paul D. McLean, and Patricia A. Roos