Consumer attitudes toward biotechnology differ depending on whether food is fresh or processed

Genetically modified food is a very controversial subject. More and more people are growing skeptical of its safety and going out of their way to avoid it, while others are less concerned by its risks. What factors play a role in these attitudes? In a study carried out by the University of Florida, Gainesville, researchers looked into how people view the use of biotechnology in food production and how that opinion could change depending on whether the food was fresh or processed.

The study involved online surveys of more than 1,600 people from the United States and five international markets: Spain, Belgium, Germany, France and Japan. The researchers chose these countries because of their levels of general acceptance toward biotech food. Spain and Belgium were considered to have a low rejection of biotech food, while Germany and France were categorized as having a high level of biotech food rejection. Japan was included because of its importance as a U.S. agricultural export market.

The survey asked consumers questions designed to measure their perception of biotech food as well as their existing knowledge of the technology. To that end, they were asked to rate their level of agreement on a seven-point scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree to make the assessments.  Their knowledge of biotech food was also assessed using objective and subjective methods.

The researchers divided participants into groups depending on whether they were accepting of GE (GE tolerant) or sensitive to it (GE sensitive). They then compared respondents within these categories to find out which information can influence their level of GE tolerance.

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They found that overall, 82 percent of participants considered fresh apples to be healthy and 71 percent considered apple juice to be healthy. However, the perceptions of these two foods being healthy dropped to 32 percent for both products when they involved apples from genetically modified trees. This means that, not surprisingly, the perception of the health of the fresh food took a bigger hit than that of the more processed food when genetic modification was involved.

Different nationalities have different acceptance levels

There were also geographical differences. American and Spanish respondents maintained a relatively high healthy perception of the foods despite genetic modification. In Japan, Germany, and France, however, respondents changed initial healthy perceptions to either neutral or unhealthy when a genetically modified tree was involved.

Interestingly, they found that a close association with religion did not lead to moral concerns about biotechnology. American and Spanish consumers were generally optimistic about the benefits of biotech foods, while the French and Germans showed a lot more cynicism.

They then took a look at the consumers who had healthy perceptions of the apples and apple juice at first to try to uncover which characteristics might have influenced some people to change their initial perceptions. They were divided into groups and given one of three different types of positive information about biotechnology.

Regardless of their country of origin, all the respondents were most forgiving of using genetic modification when it was said to reduce pesticide use in food production, and this was followed by protecting plants from diseases that would harm their future production. They also found that those who believe that biotechnology can make food last longer and help reduce hunger and poverty by boosting the global food supply were more likely to be tolerant of genetic modification.

The main takeaway here is that consumer attitudes toward GE foods can be influenced by positive information, although the extent to which this will work depends on whether the food is fresh or processed. This could well explain why firms like Monsanto are willing to stop at nothing to spread false information about the benefits of their products and destroy the credibility of those who dare speak out against them.

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