Viewpoint: What are the keys to full consumer acceptance of foods derived from genetically modified seeds?

“BIo-modified and genetically modified foods could be more successful in the market if they have visual disclosure on the packaging (the BE symbol) and include information about positive benefits. This is one of the main findings of last month’s Food Industry Association (FMI) Foundation report titled “Consumer Attitudes, Trust and Acceptance of Bioengineered Foods”. and gene-modified under the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard”. FMI is an industry trade association representing different companies in the food value chain, especially retailers. The IMF Foundation is their foundation, which is operated for “charitable, educational and scientific purposes”. They are funded almost exclusively by food manufacturers and retailers, so their results and analyzes should be scrutinized for any potential bias and viewed with some skepticism.

The IMF Foundation engaged academics from Michigan State University and Purdue University to conduct a nationwide online survey of 2,004 consumers in October 2021. The researchers asked questions about:

…consumer confidence in various institutional entities engaged in disseminating information on bioengineered and genetically modified food products; … consumer awareness of the technology and understanding of the label under review; [and]…consumer preferences and willingness to pay (WTP) for bio-engineered and gene-modified products versus USDA organic, non-GMO, and conventional romaine lettuce using purchase decisions simulated retail.

Using romaine lettuce as an example product, the survey asked consumers to make simulated retail purchases of romaine lettuce with different labels and prices. The responses were used to calculate the “consumer’s willingness to pay (WTP) for bio-engineered and gene-modified products compared to other products (USDA organic, non-GMO, and conventional) under different vehicles information (text, BE label and QR code) and benefit messages (non-browning) WTP is the maximum amount a customer is willing to pay for a particular product (i.e. lettuce genetically modified) compared to the price of a similar product (i.e. conventionally produced lettuce). The highest WTP was for organic and non-GMO lettuce, which is expected since these labels are present in supermarkets for many years.Comparing conventional lettuce with GM and GM varieties, respondents almost uniformly had lower WTPs (a negative amount) for GM varieties. modified and genetically modified. Respondents mostly expressed a higher, slightly negative or, in a few cases, slightly positive WTP when the product contained either the BE symbol or a QR code on the packaging and the respondent accessed additional information about the product. product. The supplemental information consisted of a simple factual statement, often taken from a government website, describing the different methods of producing the product. Respondents expressed the highest WTP for GM and bio-modified lettuce when a package contained the BE symbol, the respondent searched for the additional information and the package identified the benefit (“non-browning”) , with about half of the options resulting in a positive WTP or premium price over the conventional variety. The report concluded that food manufacturers should provide consumers with benefit information and disclose that a product is bioengineered or gene-edited using either the BE label (USDA symbol) or a QR code instead of text on their packaging.

What I take away clearly is that the more transparent food manufacturers are about the technologies used to produce food and the more information they provide about why the technology is used, the more likely consumers are to purchase these products (although, with few exceptions, the WTP for transgenic and genetically modified lettuce is always negative and these products would not be purchased by consumers over existing products on the market).

A second finding reinforces a view I’ve had for years that many consumers are unfamiliar with these technologies. Sixty percent of respondents said they had heard of the term “genetically modified” and know what it means, while only 40% could say the same for “bioengineered” and 33% for “genetically modified”. Forty-two percent of respondents had never heard of the term “gene editing” and 68% did not know the difference between gene editing and genetic modification/bioengineering. Taken together, these results suggest that significant consumer education about these technologies and terms is needed for consumers to make informed choices.

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Finally, I found an interesting part of the study dealing with consumer confidence in different sources of information. The survey found that respondents identified the FDA and USDA as relatively more trustworthy (0.38 and 0.40 respectively on a scale between -0.50 and +0.50), while the US Congress (-0.16), social media platforms (-0.31 to -0.38) and new outlets (-0.12 to -0.18) are rated as untrustworthy. More than 50% of respondents prefer disclosures via on-pack label (symbol) over on-pack text (about 20%) or QR code (about 10%). The survey then found that respondents’ relative trust in various sources of information was higher for information on the product label than for other sources of information (e.g., company websites, government websites, social media, and links or text on product packaging). These data reinforce that government agencies must play a role in educating consumers about food production and that federal labeling policies are important because consumers trust what they read on a label the most.

Taken together, the IMF Foundation report shows the difficult road that genetically modified and bioengineered foods must travel for consumers to prefer them over organic, non-GMO and conventional products. Meaningful education about these processes and transparency about the products using these technologies and why they are used appear to be prerequisites for consumers considering purchasing them over existing products.

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