Confirming reports from the European Commission this week that the European consumer is sceptical about food-related biotechnologies, are the findings of a joint UK-US study into GE biscuits. Researchers found European shoppers to be cynical, more concerned about the environmental impact of GM foods, and less likely to believe in information provided by the government and food safety authorities than their American neighbours.
Scientists at Mississippi State university in the US and the University of Reading in the UK set out to examine international consumer demand for genetically modified foods in a bid to lift some of the mist surrounding this complex issue.
"The conventional wisdom is that US consumers are generally accepting (or perhaps unknowledgeable) of genetically modified foods.
However, there is clearly some segment of the population that is adamantly opposed to use of biotechnology in food production and is willing-to-pay premiums for foods without genetically modified ingredients. How large is this consumer segment? What kinds of premiums will this segment pay for genetically modified foods? Are EU consumers really all that different from those in the US and, if so, why? " said lead researcher Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
Research in the summer and autumn of 2002 involved primary household shoppers in three US towns (in the states of California, Florida, and Texas), Reading in the UK, and Grenoble in France. Subjects in each case were asked questions to determine their knowledge of and attitudes about the use of genetic modification in foods. They then participated in an auction to determine their preferences for a genetically modified chocolate chip biscuit.
"We had consumers in each of the locations participate in an active market exercise that involved the exchange of real food and real money to determine the price-premium they placed on a chocolate chip cookie containing no genetically modified ingredients versus one containing genetically modified ingredients," said Lusk.
Conclusions drawn from the results confirm existing presentiments - that the US consumer is far more open to GM foods that her European cousin.
"Over 65 per cent of US consumers demanded an amount between $0.00 and $0.24 to exchange their non-genetically modified cookie for the genetically modified cookie, whereas only 37 per cent of English and 27 per cent of French consumers fell in the same category," reports Lusk. But the scientist is also keen to highlight a further finding. "There is significant heterogeneity within each country, with significant segments of the English and French populations having both relatively low and high concern for the genetically modified food."
Having established that there are, in fact, differences in US and EU consumers, the scientists went on to address the question as to why these differences exist. Does the answer lie in different concerns for the environment and a certain amount of cynicism on the part of the European consumer? They asked a number of survey questions and, in general, hypothesised that cross-country differences might arise because of differences in knowledge, trust, general attitudes toward the environment, food, and technology, and perceptions of the benefits and risk of biotechnology.
Lusk said the survey found French consumers strongly believed they were knowledgeable about GM foods, but true/false questions revealed little difference in actual knowledge among consumers in the three countries. Responses showed all the consumers had a moderate to low objective knowledge about GM foods.
According to Lusk, 'The French and English consumers were much more concerned about the environment in general, and view genetically modified foods as a greater risk to the environment than do US consumers. English and French consumers were much less optimistic about the ability of technology in general to improve society and civilisation than were US consumers.'
Testament to the European cynicism, Lusk reports, 'French and English consumers were much less trusting of information about genetically modified foods from their federal food regulatory agencies (the FDA, USDA, and their international equivalents) than were US consumers.' According to Lusk, US consumers were also more trusting of agribusinesses than were the EU consumers. In contrast, the EU consumers were more trusting of information about use of genetic modification in food production from activist groups such as Greenpeace than their American counterparts.
Although age appears to have had a slight influence on GM acceptance - with older consumers being more accepting of use of genetic modification in food production than younger consumers - the researchers report that there was no apparent relationship between consumers' demographic characteristics, income, education, race, and religion, and their acceptance of genetically modified foods.
Lusk set out to examine the GM issue in order to provide agricultural producers in the US with an understanding of consumer demand for genetically modified foods, the viability of current production practices and finally, to forecast future changes in marketing opportunities. By all accounts, despite the many promises that biotechnology holds within its grasp, the study from Lusk and colleagues across the Atlantic reveals agricultural producers of GM food ingredients are in for a rocky ride in Europe.
Conclusions drawn from the study would lead us to believe that, for the US agricultural producer, progress in the near future will hinge on two issues - convincing the European consumer that GM foods are not harmful to the environment, and secondly, encouraging the cynical consumer to believe in information provided by the powers that be.
Education, together with a two-way exchange, could be the key to gaining consumer acceptance. On the occasion of World Consumer Rights Day (15 March) consumer groups urged governments to listen to people's views during the public debate on GM food. Deirdre Hutton, chairperson of the UK National Consumers Council commented: "People feel strongly about the use of GM in food production and want to know exactly what they are eating and how it has been produced. Consumers must shape the debate and influence the final decisions on whether to give the go-ahead to GM crops."