But they might not care as much as you'd imagine.
The four most important factors in the grocery store are still taste, price, nutrition and safety, the Farm Bureau's Food and Farm Index shows. Lastly came concerns about where and how consumers' food is raised or produced, such as food derived from genetically modified organisms.
"We wanted to know how important labels are to consumers," said Laurie Johns, an Iowa Farm Bureau spokeswoman. "Although there's no push in Iowa to label GMOs, it is happening in other states. There's a lot of confusion when it comes to GMO crops."
Vermont became the first state to mandate labeling GMOs in May. Advocates of mandatory labeling in Oregon say they collected more than enough signatures to qualify a measure for the November ballot. Labeling efforts failed last year in Iowa, where 91 percent of the corn and 93 percent of the soybean acres were genetically modified last year. DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto and other biotech seed producers have major operations in the state.
GMO crops — corn, soybeans, fruits and vegetables — are grown using seed that's been modified to express traits such as resistance to a pest, an environmental condition or a chemical. Opponents worry that not enough is known about biotech crops, which they're concerned could lead to health problems. They've urged tougher oversight of the crops by U.S. regulators and labels for GMO products.
Proponents argue that the GMO crops are safe for consumers, with the same nutrition as their non-GMO counterparts, and can reduce chemicals used to raise crops, make food more nutritious and improve yields to help feed a hungry world.
The Harris Poll interviewed 500 Iowans in May for the Farm Bureau and found some conflicting views on GMOs.
Only 18 percent of consumers who pay attention to labels said GMO-free tags gave them the information they sought.
Topping the list was whether a product was grown or made in the U.S. or locally and whether it contained high-fructose corn syrup.
And only 26 percent of those polled would buy GMO-free products if they cost significantly more, the survey showed. Thirty-eight percent said they would not pay more and 36 percent were unsure.
Still, when asked what labels indicated products were safe, 36 percent of respondents pointed to non-GMO foods.
Ruth MacDonald, an Iowa State University food science professor, said consumers are conflicted about food, and that gets connected to issues like GMOs and high-fructose syrup.
"People hear more about obesity and diabetes. ... We have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), gluten sensitivity, and people are worried about allergies — kids with terrible allergies — and they want an answer," she said. "They want to know what's causing it. They want to put their hands on it, and they want to avoid it."
Biotechnology isn't well understood by consumers, MacDonald said.
"If consumers don't understand what a GMO is ... their first reaction is going to be, 'I don't want it,'" she said. But "if consumers understand that GMOs are very safe, they've been tested, they've been on the market a long time ... then they'd realize it's not a big deal, there's no reason to worry."
But state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, who introduced legislation last year to label genetically modified foods, said many Iowans want to know more about the food they're eating.
He pointed to an ABC News poll that showed overwhelming support — 93 percent — for labeling GMO foods.
"Most Iowans, most Americans want labeling that tells them what's in the products they're buying at the grocery store," said the Iowa City Democrat. "And there shouldn't be any reason why products aren't labeled."
But MacDonald said the logistics of tracking corn, soybeans or other products from fields across the country to food producers around the world could be a logistical nightmare. And it would certainly add cost.
"The complications of labeling are vast," she said.
Consider corn oil. Regardless of whether it came from corn that was GMO, non-GMO or organic, "it's all chemically the same. There's no difference between those three sources of corn oil. So as a manufacturer, I have no way to test to prove that a product isn't GMO unless I trace the corn from where it left the field.
"It adds another level of complexity to my supply system," MacDonald said. "It makes everything we do so much more complicated and legislatively monitored for no health benefit to the consumer. That's the bottom line.
"What is your right to know vs. the right of the food system to not have the burden of telling you everything possible about the food at great cost?" she said. "We already have people who have difficulty buying food. Why would we move toward making it more complicated and expensive?"
But Bolkcom said farmers embraced the technology without consumers having an opportunity to question it. "Now, big food and ag interests are just saying, 'Trust us,'" he said. "Consumers should be engaged."
In surveying Iowans, more than three-fourths said they'd buy GMO products if they knew more about the benefits, such as opportunities to improve nutrition and taste.
"When consumers have good information, it does influence their decisions," said Johns, the Iowa Farm Bureau spokeswoman.
The survey also showed that 46 percent of Iowans would continue eating foods they normally eat if they knew they contained GMOs; 18 percent said no; and 36 percent were unsure.
Originally Published: USA Today