Consumers, Grapes and Gene Editing
Cornell’s Brad Rickard Sheds Light On
What The Research Shows and What’s Yet to Be Learned
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, January 3, 2022
Brad Rickard has an inquisitive mind and a generous heart. He has presented with us in numerous venues and always left the audience thinking:
Cornell Professor Brad Rickard
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Now, at the most recent New York Produce Show and Conference, Professor Rickard presented some new research built around grapes, focusing on consumer attitudes and industry dynamics related to gene editing. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to detail:
Associate Professor of Food and Agricultural Economics
Faculty Fellow, Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability
Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
Cornell SC Johnson College of Business
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
Q: Hi Brad, first, thanks for being part of the Foundational Excellence Program. Miguel Gómez provided a nice overview, including your quick-fire multi-faceted talk, summarizing several research projects for that Program.
I also want to thank you for your more in-depth educational micro session that ran concurrently during the Main Trade Show at the Javits Center. Thanks for sending me your related research to review in advance of your session. As expected, the topic is thought-provoking and newsworthy. Your dynamic talks are always a major draw.
A: Mira, it’s good to reconnect with you, and it was nice to catch up with you again at the Show. This year’s educational session was based on work studying consumers’ willingness to accept gene edited fruit, and a paper focused on the application to quality traits for fresh table grapes.
Q: What was the impetus for the study? Is it a continuation or complementary to research you’ve done? Why are you focusing on fresh table grapes? I know it’s a highly competitive category with thousands of varieties, so I think it might be interesting to just have context on that front as well...
A: Okay. Yes, this one I would say is mostly motivated because I’m involved in a big USDA project built around breeding grapes. It’s a project that’s a little bit backward looking but mostly forward looking about what sort of things grape breeders should be taking into consideration. So, it’s things like climate change, soil use, water use, these types of sustainability attributes on the production of grapes. Yield is always a big deal when you’re thinking about new breeds of any type of fruits. But I think it’s especially true of table grapes with pest resistance. USDA included us in this big project because they also wanted people to think about the consumer element and what’s interesting or important to consumers of grapes, table grapes, raisin grapes, wine grapes. But what I talked about at the Show is just a piece specific to table grapes.
Q: Yes, that was of specific interest to our audience.
A: So, this is part of a much larger project, a five-year USDA project, called Vitis Gen. Vitis is the Latin word for grapes, and Gen represents the next generation in breeding.
Q: Could you provide context on why you’re concentrating consumer research on gene editing on the grape category?
A: Yes. So, consumers will just have to think about green grapes and red grapes or black grapes. But then, unlike apples, they don’t really carry varietal names, or as consumers, we don’t think about the varietal names. But you’re right, there are heaps and heaps of varieties in the background that sort of feed the red grapes category throughout different parts of the world and the same with green... There are some flagship table grapes varieties... I put together a couple of nice slides that show the market share of the main ones for red, green, and black, and the evolution of these varieties... when they were introduced, what market share they got to, what was their maximum market share. For instance, in the green table grape varieties between 1971 and 2020, the total acres have been about the same. In fact, there’s maybe a few less acres in green table grape production now than there was back in 1970 in the United States. But there was sort of seven main categories back in 1970 and then today we see that there are 20 main varieties…Thompson’s Seedless used to be probably 70 percent of the acreage back in 1970, and it’s still a big share but it’s probably closer to 25 percent now.
A: All these other varieties have come on board and some of them have come out of public breeding programs. Some have come out of private breeding programs. Some are licensed and patented. Some of them are still sort of coming out of USDA. But I think the punchline is that there’s many more varieties available to growers. The same could be said about red table grape varieties. I think we’ve gone from about six main varieties back in 1970 to closer to 25 varieties nowadays.
Q: Has the motivation in these breeding programs concentrated on industry production issues, shelf-life advantages, etc. Are the flavor profiles, taste, crispness, and all these consumer facing characteristics dramatically different between all these varieties...
A: They can be. These different attributes that we look at in the study can vary between varieties. They changed over time. There’s been improvements in most of those attributes, in addition to other attributes with yield and production, etc. as well.
Q: Are consumers tuned in to the nuances of all these different varieties...
A: Consumers maybe aren’t aware…if you’re not in the table grape business, you might be surprised how many varieties there are being grown in the United States today relative to 50 years ago.
I guess it just helps to motivate this whole USDA project about breeding because there’s quite a bit of breeding activity in the grape industry. There’s a lot of new varieties that exist today that didn’t exist in the past. There’s a lot of other new varieties that are on the horizon and just the whole business of breeding table grapes has become more interesting. It’s a good time to think about all these different attributes that you could breed for. You could breed for yield. You could breed for sweetness and crispness and those things that we include in our study. You could breed for the environmental attributes as well.
I guess I’m just giving some iteration that this breeding business is kind of dynamic for various reasons.
Q: With that context, let’s get into this study, where you’re trying to analyze consumer willingness to pay for gene-edited grapes versus conventional. The first question is defining gene editing and how it compares or contrasts to genetic engineering, or GMO’s. GMO’s have generated major controversy in the U.S. and globally. Are there many different types of gene edits that can be done, what’s the science involved? And do consumers even understand the difference?
A: Yes and no. These are good questions. I have some answers here. Why don’t I just start with the background of genetic engineering. That’s a good place to start. So, we’re not scientists here but gene editing has sort of become an alternative to GMO’s…and the motivation here, I think, is that in previous fruits and vegetables and other agricultural crops, there has been a lot of breeding programs that became interested in genetically modified or genetically engineered varieties. And that’s faced a lot of pushback from consumers. So now as we move forward in plant breeding techniques, gene editing is different from genetic engineering or different from genetically modified organisms.
We can talk a little bit about the technology, but it’s different. It’s sort of new…it’s the next step in plant breeding technologies. And some people fear that it may face this similar sort of pushback from consumers because it’s a new breeding technology. Gene editing kind of sounds a bit like genetic engineering. But it is different.
The way I describe it, it lets scientists manipulate the DNA. They’re able to remove, insert, replace portions of DNA in plants. It also has applications elsewhere, to bacteria, plants, and animals, but the focus here is on plants, on table grapes.
And then the other thing about this, we’ve come across four different systems of gene editing. The one that seems to be the most talked about, that scientists are most excited about is this CRISPR, an acronym, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat.
CRISPR is one type of gene editing that scientists think has potential for plant breeding. They typically would describe it as being simpler, faster, cheaper, and more accurate than these other gene editings. Perhaps it’s the gene editing technology that has the most future now.
Q: Okay. Is it being used now in any produce items?
A: There’s a lot of science underway that’s investigating the application of CRISPR to casaba and grapefruit and maize and mushrooms and some other fruits and vegetables.
Q: In some of the research, there was information about experimental gene editing by plant breeding programs that included tomatoes and potatoes and citrus.
A: I know there are a lot of studies going on that are using CRISPR gene editing technologies applied to a wide range of crops. In the case of oranges, there are efforts trying to deal with that citrus greening problem that’s a big issue in Florida. I think except for Canola, gene editing is not being used commercially in the United States. This is a bigger project on plant breeding we’re doing together as a team with researchers from Washington State University and UC Davis.
Q: What caught my eye was the reference to market-oriented traits...
A: Yes, that would be the more consumer-oriented projects. Some of them are done for things like the food quality. Sometimes it’s shelf life. Sometimes it’s things like size. In our study, what we’re doing is thinking about the fruit taste, texture, external appearance, and chemical applications. We want to know how important those things are to consumers and then in addition, how important are those things with or without different breeding techniques, specifically through conventional breeding or gene editing, and what’s the tradeoff, because most consumers like tastier fruit, but some consumers are a little hesitant to get that through some sort of perhaps controversial breeding technology.
We want to try to understand that tradeoff or that tension for consumers on average.
There is so much someone will pay for better tasting fruit but then they may also have a discount if they hear that it was produced through gene editing. We’re able to compare premiums of better tasting fruit versus the discount. Do they wash out or is one of those effects more important? Does that make sense?
Q: Yes. That would require establishing what attributes are important to consumers and then their willingness to pay for them with or without gene editing?
A: That’s right. We’re trying to say what attributes are important to U.S. consumers and then layered on top of that, how do you feel about this new breeding technology? It’s not genetic engineering, it’s gene editing, and we give them information to describe what is gene editing.
Some consumers know about gene editing, while others don’t. And so they rely on the information we give them to think about this technology.
Q: Could you give us some isight into how the research was conducted, the methodology...how the information was communicated to participants, etc.
A: We could talk a little about the survey we did, about the scenarios we gave, and then about the results.
Q: I know we can’t cover everything here, but it will be great to get some of the highlights. Another point I’m hoping you can discuss is related to regulation of these new technologies and impacts of consumer product labeling.
Is it correct that the USDA is not going to be regulating gene editing in the same way they are doing with genetic engineering? If so, could that make a difference in the big picture? I remember studies you’ve done on these effects, exploring whether labeling a product as GMO, could create, fairly or not, a skull-and-crossbones alarm for consumers, and alternatively, companies marketing product as non-GMO could be used as a selling point... And how different products elicited different consumer responses... Without a gene-edited label, for instance, will the consumer even know one way or the other?
A: I think this is part of the story. It depends how deep the consumer digs. But you’re right. As of now, the USDA has decided that gene edited agricultural crops aren’t different enough from conventionally bred products; that they don’t need to be labeled differently because of this manipulation of DNA. I think some people think of it as less manipulation than what’s done using genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is enough manipulation that the government feels that’s a place where there’s enough change that they feel consumers do need to know that information. While the gene editing, the level of manipulation is less, or they consider it not enough to warrant labels to consumers.
Q: Part of your study is looking to see if consumers will pay a reduced price if the product is gene edited, but in the real world they wouldn’t be told that...
A: So, I think this is part of the strategy before these products become available, I think we’re probably less concerned about how they react to the information versus before plant breeders start to adopt these technologies, what should they expect? Should they expect that consumers…I guess we could live in a world where all the table grapes in the United States use gene editing and all the table grapes produced in France don’t use gene editing, right? Then it would become simply are these grapes produced in the United States, or are they produced somewhere that doesn’t use or doesn’t allow gene editing? It’s at that point, I think, breeders might be interested in how consumers differentiate. If there is this world you can imagine where maybe they’re labeled as gene edited or not, but maybe they secretly are gene edited or not because of where they were produced, for instance. Or there could be some table grape producers in California that decide not to use gene-edited fruit stock or plants, right? They could produce table grapes and label them as not gene edited.
Q: You always keep me on my toes!
A: It’s still relevant as long as you can imagine a world where there could be these two distinctive markets. And the two distinctive markets could arise because the market says oh, you must label these as containing whatever or they could be differentiated because there are no rules about labeling things that contain, and then some firms or some countries, just label them as not containing. But it’s kind of an interesting side story that labeling, whether it’s does contain or does not contain, depending how they’re trying to differentiate their products from the mainstream or from other producers.
Actually, I think that is pretty important that you asked that because if everything is just going to become gene edited, then it’s kind of a moot point. But if you imagine a world – I guess plant breeders imagine a world where there could be some gene edited fruits and then some not gene edited, they want to understand the impacts. In this case, we’re just trying to quantify what that consumer response would be to that, whether it’s labeled or not labeled or whether the competitors’ product is labeled or not labeled.
Q: What did your research find?
A: We do find – and other people have done this work, too – there are some consumers that aren’t willing to buy gene-edited agricultural products. But in general, we find that on average, people are willing to buy at a discount for gene-edited agricultural products, but it’s not as big of a discount as you will have on average to genetically engineered agricultural products.
Q: Okay. So, your research is complementing or validating what’s been done with other studies?
A: Yes. There is some complementing, but it also adds something because it’s so specific to table grapes. We started off wanting to see how different people in the supply chain viewed this, what kind of importance they placed on different attributes in table grapes. We were curious what attributes were important to producers. We wanted to talk to retailers or somebody in the middle of the supply chain to see what was important to them. And then we wanted to also do this with consumers.
Q: I imagine those priorities were not always aligned between producers, retailers, and consumers and, also differed within those segments...
A: It turned out it was a lot harder to do this research with producers and with retailers. It’s hard to collect enough data, so in this study we decided first to focus on consumers. We put together this survey. We sent it out to about 2,500 consumers of table grapes and we asked them questions about who they are and what kind of table grape purchase pattern they have, what kind of table grape and fruit consumption. We asked them quite a few questions about their perceptions of food and science and technologies. We asked them questions about preferences for attributes in food more generally, all in this survey.
And then towards the end of the survey, we started putting them through some scenarios where we asked them some questions. We gave them a couple of table grapes, fictitious table grapes with certain attributes, and we asked them to tell us which one they were more or less likely to purchase. I don’t know if it’s interesting or not, but we did this consumer survey kind of at the start and in the midst of the COVID outbreak.
Q: Yes, very interesting. Do you think that impacted your results? What is your hypothesis, or speculation?
A: We’re never sure how that affects survey results, but we had a very good response rate because a lot of people were home. But most of this data was collected in April, May of 2020. This was a time when there were some shortages in the grocery store because it was right at the height of the initial outbreak of COVID in the United States. There were these stories in the news about empty shelves in the grocery stores. That sort of makes people think more about food, and maybe they don’t care as much about the technology...they just want to get food and are less sensitive to whether the product is gene edited. But then on the other hand, I think during this time most of us weren’t buying any food at the foodservice. We were buying all of our food at the grocery stores because restaurants and all the hospitality sector shut down.
So, we were probably thinking more about food purchases in general during this time, right, because we were making a lot more food at home, which effected buying decisions...forgive my long-winded answer. I’m just not sure. It could have really affected us either way.
Q: Also, like you said, you had more thorough responses because people were working from home, and they might have had some more time to be doing the survey. It could have affected the range of people who responded as well...And maybe some had lost their jobs so income played more of a factor...?
A: Yes, that was the other consideration during this time. We saw unemployment creep up because some people were being laid off, some people were working reduced hours at home. So it’s possible that some of these households had less income and then if you have reduced income sometimes you become less interested in attributes in food and you just become more focused on the price of food.
I think all these things could influence answers, but it’s not clear to me which direction if it did affect the results at all. It could’ve gone either direction, I think.
Part of the problem is we designed the survey before COVID and then we got the go ahead to release it just as COVID was sort of happening in the U.S. And we didn’t really have that chance to go back and add questions or adjust questions, given that we were in the pandemic.
Q: I’m intrigued by this discussion. There’s the added variable that many people were purchasing online and not going into the grocery store. Then there’s the long-standing issue that actions speak louder than words. Do you generally find that what people say in surveys online mirrors what the reality is when they’re doing purchases in store? I don’t know how complicated and challenging it is to do in-person follow-up studies or in-store studies. I know we discussed this kind of thing in the past. Can you address that?
A: So, it’s this age-old say-do problem, where people say one thing and then do something else. This was an internet-based study. We needed a lot of people to have a statistically valid response. So we were kind of limited to doing something faster. There is some language we can use to try to encourage people to be honest. But yes, there is often a bias. Normally in these types of internet surveys, I don’t think it effects their relative choices, or it’s shown not to effect their relative choices in a significant way. But they’ll still say they prefer this attribute over this attribute, or this attribute over that attribute, in an internet survey. And they still hold those preferences in the grocery store, but in these internet surveys, sometimes they overestimate how much they’d be willing to pay for some of these attributes.
Like in the real world, they’d still be willing to pay for this attribute more than this attribute. But the magnitude for which they’re willing to pay, the premium that they actually have in the real world sometimes isn’t as great as what you calculate in these studies that are based on data collected in an internet survey.
Q: That’s useful to know...
A: In this data collection, the final part is what we called a choice experiment, where we give consumers choices between these table grape products. This is where we change the fruit taste, the external appearance, the expected number of chemical applications and the breeding technique, as well as the price. Then we ask people which of these two options would they choose. And when they go through this exercise, you can imagine that there’s a lot of different possibilities of combinations of attributes. We don’t ask every person to answer every combination. That’s why we need so many people so that this distribution of choices is spread out across all of our different consumers. But then in the end, we can calculate average effects…
Q: Are the definitions straight forward? Often the way something is worded can influence results...
A: I think we give fairly good definitions of what we mean if something has superior fruit taste or inferior fruit taste, if it has excellent external appearance or poor external appearance. And then for the breeding technique, we give detailed definitions of both conventional breeding and then gene editing breeding. I shared this language during my presentation.
We borrowed from scientists. But within the definition of gene editing, we do say the USDA recently proposed that plants produced using gene editing will be treated the same as conventionally bred plants. And that the USDA even says that we can assume that plants produced using gene editing may be labeled as organic.
Q: Wow, that’s interesting, too.
A: There’s actually not a gene-edited, organically produced fruit that’s available. That scenario doesn’t exist in reality, but theoretically it could. And maybe it will in the future.
Q: Right. Or maybe the people that are doing organics don’t want to have it.
A: There’s that, yes, but that’s a major difference because if a plant is produced using genetic engineering, the USDA says specifically that that plant or the food produced from that plant cannot by definition qualify or be labeled as organic. But if the plant is bred using gene editing, if it follows the rules, it could be considered and labeled as organic.
I think for consumers who don’t want all the gory details, it signals that gene editing is a modification of the DNA structure of the plant but it’s not as large a modification as what genetic engineering does.
At the Show I talked about some of the demographic characteristics of the people in our survey relative to the averages. For instance, people in our survey were a little bit older, they had a little more income, they had a few more members in the household, they were a little more educated, I suppose, than the U.S. average. And were a little more female represented than the U.S. average. But the race demographics were close to the U.S. average, so that was well represented.
Q: I’m interested to learn how results break out with different consumer segments...
A: I talked about how there’s an average effect and then there’s different groups of consumers who think about this differently.
You were asking about ranking of attributes, which is a good question. I presented the results on this looking at fruit taste and texture, external appearance, number of chemical applications, and the breeding technique. What we find here is that the fruit taste and texture is the most important attribute. It leads to the highest increase in willingness to pay relative to the other attributes. And then second most important is its external appearance. Third most important is the number of chemical applications, which is kind of surprising because table grapes are a crop that does use a lot of fungicides, so it is a crop that’s been exposed to a lot of chemicals. You would think that of all the crops out there, consumers might be concerned about these chemical applications. But it turns out that they’re much, much more interested in fruit taste and texture and external appearance than they are about the number of chemical applications. Still, when you tell consumers that this table grape was produced using 80 percent less chemicals applied to the crop than the industry average number of applications, consumers were willing to pay a premium for that, knowing that the premium is not as great as it was if you told them this is a beautiful looking table grape or this has a really sweet and crisp trait or profile.
We discussed many specific numbers also. But the rank order is definitely fruit taste and texture, and then maybe half as important is its external appearance, and then half as important again is its chemical applications. And then we do find that people want a discount for gene-edited table grapes. They’re willing to pay less for them if they were bred using gene editing.
The discount from gene editing is almost the same as the premium that they’re willing to pay when they know that it has a beautiful external appearance. Those two affects almost cancel each other out.
But the extra premium that consumers are willing to pay for tastier fruit, fruit with better texture, that exceeds the discount that consumers need to take to purchase the fruits produced using gene editing. That premium is quite large. It outweighs the discount from gene edited fruits.
There is a small premium they’re willing to pay for reduced number of chemical applications, but it is totally washed out and then some by the discount that consumers feel they should receive for accepting the gene edited fruit.
Q: Got it. So, if producers are looking to do gene editing, they should try to focus on the taste and texture as the priority, and then appearance.
A: Yes, that’s my take on that because if you produce table grapes with gene editing, consumers are saying, I need this discount, but I’m willing to accept these table grapes produced using gene editing and you as a producer would receive additional profit if and only if those gene-edited fruits were able to provide superior fruit taste and texture. If the gene-edited fruit can do that, then consumers would be happy, producers would be happy as well.
And the same story mostly holds for this if the gene edited fruit could improve the external appearance of table grapes. But in the case of chemical applications, if the gene-edited fruit was able to reduce the number of chemical applications, then from our estimate that would not be an attribute that’s important enough to consumers such that they would accept the gene-edited fruit.
Q: I’m curious to know, jumping outside the box of table grapes, do you think you would you get the same kinds of results if you were doing a consumer study on a different fruit?
A: That is a good question. I think it probably depends if these are the attributes that are also important to that other fruit. So, taste and texture, that’s universally important to most fruit. But its external experience maybe isn’t as important. Maybe it’s more important for some fruits relative to table grapes.
I think with citrus it’s probably less important but with apples it might be more important. So, some of these results are specific to table grapes and it probably just depends on how important those attributes are to other fruits and vegetables.
Q: Right. Also, you were pointing out that with table grapes, it’s one of the commodities that does use chemical applications more.
A: Another thing that can be useful when reflecting on this subject... we break our sample of 2,500 people into four groups based on their general level of acceptance of gene editing, using our statistical model.
We have one group that is keen on gene editing, right, so they are even willing to pay a premium for gene-edited table grapes.
Q: That’s interesting. Does that group have certain sociodemographic characteristics, such as higher education, or higher income...?
A: It’s sort of a mixture of different sociodemographic attributes. But education is part of that. Income is part of that. The rural/urban divide is part of that. Where in the United States they grew up is part of that. I described some of the average characteristics of people that fall into these four different groups. But basically, the main thing that separates them is how accepting of gene editing they are. And the other thing I want to highlight here is how the groups start to have different rankings of these attributes as more or less important to them.
For instance, this first group that is generally positive about gene editing, about 22 percent of the participants, wanted to pay a premium for gene edited table grapes on average. And the most important attribute to them is external appearance. Then fruit taste and texture is the second most important attribute. And in fact, the number of chemical applications is actually not important to them.
We move to another group that is slightly negative on gene editing. They kind of follow the traditional pattern where fruit taste and texture is most important. External appearance is second most important and then expected number of chemical applications is third most important. But here the relative importance of the three attributes is closer to each other than when you throw everyone together. And when you throw everyone together, this fruit taste and texture was the top attribute by far.
The third group is a little less keen on gene editing. This group is really not that interested in the fruit taste and texture. All of their importance is about external appearance. And to them, the most important thing is the number of chemical applications. So another interesting reversal in sort of the rank order of the attributes for table grapes.
And then there’s a fourth group, which is the anti-gene editing group. The group represented about 20 percent of the population that was most against the use of gene editing. And to them, they were equally interested in fruit taste and texture and external appearance, but they were not interested in the impact of reducing chemical applications. The fact that gene editing might reduce the number of chemical applications, to them that wasn’t an interesting or important characteristic.
Q: Right. It’s not just about a list of preferences, it’s weighing those choices in relation to gene edited or conventional fruit and how that connects to what consumers are willing to pay.
A: Right. It’s a combination...that the breeding technique is going to lead to better fruit taste or it’s going to lead to better external appearance or it’s going to lead to fewer chemical applications. And then looking at these four groups of people that have different sorts of resistance or different levels of excitement about gene editing, you can get a sense for which of these attributes is more or less important to them relative to the average effects that we’ve talked about earlier.
Q: In addition to the group’s level of resistance or excitement to gene editing, are there other distinguishing characteristics that are common with people in each of these groups.
A: I have some additional information that provides more background about who is in each of these groups, not only are these the group of people for or against gene editing, but how old are they, what’s their income, their race, are they male or female...
Q: There is much to unravel here...but in the end, your research seems to purport that success of gene edited breeding programs requires a consumer-centric approach?
A: It’s important to understand motivations in breeding programs in table grapes, but the same can be said for apples and other fruits and vegetables. Historically, breeding programs have just largely done what producers have asked them to do, which is increase yield, sometimes increase size of fruit. And over time, breeding programs have responded to other things like sustainability measures and then even more recently, have started responding to consumer characteristics, consumer traits.
Q: Your research channels the latter. Bottom line, is this the key to a future for gene-edited fruit?
A: We see the attributes for table grapes that consumers are most interested in. Fruit taste and texture, then external appearance then expected number of chemical applications. That’s kind of the main punchline. We also show evidence that consumers on average aren’t that keen on gene editing. They need to receive a discount in order to purchase table grapes that are produced using gene editing, which makes us think that maybe we have to rethink whether we use gene editing or how we communicate the messages about CRISPR and gene editing technologies more generally. Gene editing is sort of in its infancy. And I think this final point is how it evolves depends on the relative importance of these attributes when you start to bring consumers into these groups that are for or against gene editing.
In the end it’ll be about how breeding programs respond to information from consumers.
Q: How does this align with other players in the supply chain. What if retailers differ from consumers on the attributes most important to them. For instance, maybe appearance or shelf life is a higher priority than taste and texture...
A: I think that’s a really good question. What are the implications to the supply chain? Consumers are just one end of the supply chain. A lot of these decisions are actually going to be made by retailers or somebody before it gets to the consumer. We are trying to do research and ask similar questions to producers and retailers, but it’s more challenging. We are in the midst of doing that.
I think retailers would be the most interesting because they are ultimately the gate keeper. As a consumer you can say what you’re interested in but if it’s not in the store, it’s not an option, and you can’t buy it. You just buy whatever’s in the store. I think that the retailers almost always have the final say as to what consumers are buying. But those retailers are responsive. They consider what’s important to consumers and they make their procurement decisions based on what consumers say is important. Or at least, based on their experience with consumer purchasing behavior.
It would be really fun to do these types of questions or surveys if we could get a large enough number of retailers to participate and say in their view, what are the attributes that are most important to them? How do they rank taste and texture...? Typically retailers might not be that interested or place that much value on the number of chemical applications that are applied to the table grapes because it's typically not a distinctive part of their promotion programs.
Q: That is one of the reasons for attending the event. You can ask retailers in person at the New York Produce Show how they make these assessments!
A: Having done the show for many years, it is always a reat opportunity to get their feedback. My guess is retailers might not be that interested or place that much value on the number of chemical applications that are applied to the table grapes because it’s typically not a distinctive part of their promotion programs.
Retailers, though, may have stronger or weaker views about the breeding methods that are used to produce the fruits and vegetables that they sell. We’ve seen examples with genetically modified fruits or vegetables. There are genetically engineered potatoes and apples that are deregulated. They’re being commercially grown but a lot of retailers, a lot of foodservice people aren’t interested in procuring those crops because they’re just afraid that their customers aren’t going to buy them or their customers are going to think differently about them as a retailer, as a business, and so there’s some reluctance.
Q: What about the Arctic apple? The selling point is that it doesn’t brown when cut open.
A: You’re allowed to grow it and you’re allowed to sell it. It has some markets in some locations. I think there’s quite a bit of acreage for those Arctic Apples up in British Columbia. So, I expect some consumers have a willingness to pay for that attribute. That’s positive, right? But then some of those consumers are also going to say oh, that’s a genetically engineered trait and I’m not willing to pay a premium. In fact, I need a discount in order to buy that apple that uses genetic engineering as its breeding technology. You compare the premium that they’re willing to pay for the internal appearance versus the discount they accept to pick this apple. Is it a net positive or a net negative? My guess is that it’s been a net negative for most consumers and that’s why we haven’t seen bales of Arctic apples explode on the market. Because in that particular case, the tradeoff just tips negative. Even though we like the idea, on average, the cost of the genetic engineering outweighs the benefits from the improvement.
Q: Right, but gene editing could put improvements like that in a totally different light...
A: That’s what our study seems to suggest... so maybe there is some hope for these new technologies for table grapes to lead to these types of improvements in consumer traits.
Q: In any case, you are exploring important issues that the industry needs to confront as new technology enters the field.
A: In addition to helping breeders understand what consumers want in new varieties, a major piece is what the rest of the supply chain is looking for in new varieties. And I think retailers are an important piece in this puzzle.
Q: Well, we are glad that The New York Produce Show and Conference could give you a platform to build on your research as a tool to advance the industry.
It is always interesting to see what consumers say they care about. The degree to which these findings actually impact purchasing decisions is very much an open question.
Many consumers claim an interest in what chemicals and pesticides are used on grapes. So, all right, this could lead a certain percentage to buy organic — although even organic growers have to use chemicals and pestic — and because they are typically less effective than those used on conventional produce, they often have to be used in greater quantities. Organic does not mean “planted and never touched till harvest.” But, in reality, even among consumers who buy organic, how many could really know, to any real degree the relative merits of any particular grape sold in the supermarket? After all the exact same variety, grown by many different growers in many parts of the world, will be treated differently. And how many consumers would really know how any producer raises any of them.
This Pundit knows a reasonable amount about grapes, as we have visited grape-growing and packing operations on six continents. We’ve had discussions with breeders, growers, retailers etc., and no matter how much insider knowledge we have, we couldn’t go into a supermarket to buy grapes and discern the level of pesticide and chemical usage on any of them. We doubt any consumers can do so.
The real problem in the grape industry is that most new grape varieties are in some incremental way better than a previous variety. But in most cases the differences are not pronounced enough, and the marketing budget to establish differentiation is too thin to make consumers really prefer one variety over another.
The last time the pundit visited Professor Rickard at Cornell, we also went down to visit Wegmans — one of the world’s premier retailers. Yes, they had a few proprietary varieties at robust prices in the department, but, at the entrance, there was a 30-foot-plus display of table grapes at deeply promotional prices. Now we are sure Wegmans has its standards and wouldn’t place just any grape on sale, but it also doesn’t feel the need to promote some particular proprietary variety.
Now this may well be an industry problem. How can we increase consumption if the best varieties are not the ones chosen for promotion?
Another issue is bravery. The evidence that consumers deeply object to GMOs is slight indeed. Retailers are more influenced by the prospect of protests by small special interest groups than by consumer resistance in rejecting these items.
It is always a treat to engage with Professor Rickard on these subjects as he has an inquisitive mind. He is also generous to the industry... he presented on a totally different international trade topic at the Global Trade Symposium as well as participating in the Foundational Excellence Program. So the smartest at the show got to see a Triple-Play!
Brad has also spoken at our events in Europe and, if we get lucky, we will see him there as well. In the meantime, you can get information on attending the London Produce Show and Conference here.
You can obtain information on Exhibiting or Sponsoring in London at this link.
Let us get you set up for a booth in the next New York event here.
And we can put you on the list for attendee information regarding the next New York show here.
Our gratitude to Professor Rickard for sharing his research and his perspective cannot be overstated.