GM Food With Consumer Benefits Proves Popular Choice
19 Jun, 2007 02:28 pm
Many food-producing countries have been dissuaded from planting genetically modified (GM) crops because of a widely-held fear that consumers in rich countries ? particularly in Europe ? will reject GM food, and also conventional food products from countries that adopt GM technology. But are these fears well-founded?
The primary aim of the research project was to determine the likely willingness of consumers in some of New Zealand’s key markets to purchase GM food products if they were introduced into those markets. In earlier research, we provided diverse views from key ‘gatekeepers’ in the food distribution channel in five European countries. 2 The main factors which these gatekeepers considered important when deciding which country to source food products from included trust in production systems, regulatory controls, traceability of products, consistent high quality of products and their packaging, freedom from scandals, freedom from corruption, and absence of adverse publicity. The issue of genetic modification was broached during the interviews in the wider context of factors determining purchase decisions by these gatekeepers. A consensus view of the gatekeepers was that whether or not a particular country was already growing GM crops had little bearing on their views of food from that country. Furthermore, non-food GM applications (e.g. in pest control, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, forestry etc) would be highly unlikely to cause a negative perception of a given country’s food products. 2
Some respondents in this earlier study expressed the view that consumers in certain European markets were ready for GM food products that conferred a consumer benefit and offered a price advantage. At the time, we were surprised by this view because it seemed so contrary to the prevailing opinion expressed in the news media that European consumers were unified in their total opposition to GM food. We therefore decided that this should be tested directly in an actual market setting, as the marketing literature has many examples indicating what consumers say is not what they actually do. As a first step we set up a pilot experiment in New Zealand. This was subsequently expanded to the five European countries listed. In each case, a fruit stall was set up on the side of the road, and fruit labelled in the three different ways (organic, conventional, or spray-free GM) was put on sale at different price levels, which changed every 50 customers according to a choice modelling experimental design.
Teams of students, fluent in the local language, were sent to each country to set up shop. Experimental choice modelling has been widely used as a method for determining behaviour based on subjects making choices from sets of product options put before them. What makes this study highly unusual is that the choices were real in a genuine shopping situation, rather than being made under circumstances where the subjects knew that their choices were being observed. Once they had made their choice, but before money changed hands, customers were advised that this was a university-run experiment, and that in fact they could purchase the fruit at the lowest of the prices shown.
A total of 2,736 customers visited the fruit stalls in the six different countries. Under the pricing scenario where all fruit types were sold at the same price, organic produce gained the largest market share in each market. The scenario that we consider most plausible is where there is a 15% premium paid for organic and a 15% discount for the GM-spray free option (to reflect the lower cost of inputs). Under this scenario, the GM option gained the dominant market share in the New Zealand, Swedish and German stalls, and reached 30% or more in the UK and French stalls. These results are broadly consistent with recent Eurobarometer data released in 2006. Although “strong opposition” to the overall concept of GM foods technology was reported, when Eurobarometer respondents (25,000 across the 25 member states) were asked whether they would buy GM food “if it contained fewer pesticide residues than other food”, 51% indicated “yes, definitely” or “yes, probably.” Furthermore, 36% indicated “yes, definitely” or “yes, probably” “if it were cheaper than other food”. The results of our study, together with these Eurobarometer data, indicate that GM food may prove much more acceptable than has been previously widely stated, provided there is a clear indication of consumer benefits. According to EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson “Public fears may be misplaced, but they cannot and should not be dismissed. We …need to do a better job of setting out the issues so that people are aware of the potential benefits of GM food ...” 3
- Knight JG, Mather DW, Holdsworth DK, Ermen DF. “Genetically modified food acceptance: an experiment in six countries.” Nature Biotechnology 25 (5): 507-508, 2007.
- Knight JG, Mather DW, Holdsworth DK. “Impact of genetic modification on country image of imported food products in European markets: perceptions of channel members.” Food Policy 30: 385-398, 2005.
- Mandelson P. “Biotechnology and the EU”. Speech to the European Biotechnology Info Day, Brussels 14 June 2007, www.europa.eu/rapid/pressReleases.
The EU Council of Agriculture Ministers decided on June 12th that organic foods can be labelled "GM-free" even if they contain up to 0.9% genetically modified content. Read more on The Guardian site.