For the most part, the war over GMOs is at a resting place. The anti-GMO forces have won the culture wars with a kind of aesthetic distaste for the technology, blocking its success in consumer-visible forms. That is why there is no Flavr Savr tomato anymore.
However, the science has won the practical war with extensive consumption and use of GMO soybeans, feed, processing corn and cotton — situations where the use of GMOs is not as ‘in your face” as with an apple.
The current election includes ballot propositions on GMOs, and we already discussed our assessment of these efforts in our piece on the California labeling initiative, titled Prop 37, GMOs, Labeling And The Nature Of Rights
However, the status quo on GMOs is uneasy. We’ve written about the violence in the GMO papaya fields of Hawaii in pieces such as Attack On Hawaii’s Genetically Modified Papayas Sparks Debate About Science, Organics And Freedom To Choose. And more than a year ago, we ran a “Voice of the Industry” article written by Jennifer Armen in sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS titled, The Promise Of Biotechnology.
Just recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the prospects for new GMO apples. It called the piece Inventing a GMO Apple That Won’t Brown, and earlier The New York Times profiled that GMOs might be needed to save the Florida citrus industry in a piece titled A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA.
Now Cornell’s Professor Brad Rickard is coming to The New York Produce Show and Conference to unveil new research assessing consumer attitudes toward GMOs and the prospects for consumer acceptance of GMO produce. Brad’s research is always insightful, and he has provided real value to the industry.
We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Dr. Brad Rickard
Assistant Professor of Applied Economics and Management
Charles H. Dyson, School of Applied Economics and Management
Ithaca, New York
Q: Could you give us a preview of your latest research you’ll be presenting at this year’s New York Produce Show and Conference? In past years, you’ve challenged attendees with thought-provoking studies on a range of topics, including the viability of generic produce promotion; a case study on branding apple varieties; industry issues surrounding immigration reform; and an examination of local food demand at restaurants using Zagat survey data to analyze factors that influence wine list selections.
Now you delve into the politically charged arena of genetically modified food labeling. What is the focus of your research, and how does it shed light on implications for the produce industry?
A: This year, I’m giving a talk that looks at the impacts of commercialization of GMO varieties for fruits and vegetables and thinking more carefully about consumer acceptance of GMOs. A lot of people have looked at the topic, but not necessarily with a focus on fruits and vegetables.
Q: What jumpstarted the work?
A: Some of the motivating factors here: We’ve seen widespread commercialization of GMO grain markets and cotton markets in the U.S. and elsewhere, but we haven’t seen widespread commercialization of GMOs in produce. There are genetically modified virus-resistant papaya and squash varieties, and genetically modified insect-resistant sweet corn. These varieties were developed several years ago and have limited commercialization.
Q: Do you think consumers understand that? Why is there a proliferation of anti-GMO organizations and 30-plus states looking to enact GMO labeling legislation?
A: A few things are going on in the news. There have been GMO referendums at both state and county levels, and plebiscites on whether or not to label GMO products. GMO referendums in California and Washington State, for instance, have been on the ballot, but failed in both of those states. In California, it looked like it was going to pass, but close to the vote there was a change in public opinion, and the same in Washington State. Vermont, Maine and Connecticut have all passed legislation, but it hasn’t been implemented yet. They may be looking for a broader coalition of states before they enforce the regulations.
Right now, Colorado and Oregon have proposals on the table, with special plebiscites on the GMO labeling question. There is a lot of news surrounding these debates. I see all these kinds of discussions in New York. So there’s that issue, and then the products in the R&D pipeline that are generating discussion in the produce industry.
Q: Could you elaborate?
A: There’s a genetically modified virus-resistant orange variety in development to help deal with the greening disease devastating Florida growers. And there’s a genetically modified trait, known as the Arctic anti-browning trait, that can be inserted into existing apple varieties. When you cut the flesh, it doesn’t turn brown. That innovation has been approved in Canada, and there’s been a lot of discussion whether to approve it in the U.S.
Q: Is industry opinion weighted toward developing these GMO products?
A: People in the industry are on both sides of the issue. There are people who see the benefits for the fruit and vegetable industry. If products can be developed to be resistant to viruses or insects, or can reduce the amount of pesticides used, it could be good for the environment and reduce costs.
Industry is hesitant because it is not sure how consumers will respond. They are consuming grain products and seem to accept those, although you can’t avoid them if you choose to.
Q: Why don’t we see more GMOs in the produce industry?
A:There’s a paper in Nature Biotechnology that poses that question. Is it regulatory burdens, a need for additional research, or more of a market acceptance issue? It seems to be a combination of these, but mostly due to lack of market acceptance for these varieties of produce.
There is a lot of research and development out there that hasn’t been commercialized — for bananas, carrots, lettuce, papayas, and tomatoes for example. That research is happening in the U.S. and all over the world.
Some people wonder if the concern is that a lot of fruits and vegetables are consumed in a fresh state rather than processed, since corn and soybeans are always processed. Are consumers less accepting of genetically modified products if they think of it as a fresh product? That’s one place where we’ve done some research.
We’re also doing some related work on non-GMO labeling. In the U.S., we do not see very many products that are labeled non-GMO today. Before GMO labeling becomes more widespread, what can be learned from voluntary labeling?
This kind of research gives us a better sense of what we should think about in R&D strategies as well as marketing approaches.
Q: Will your presentation at The New York Produce Show broach both these research avenues: the impact of fresh versus processed on consumer acceptance of genetically modified products, as well as GMO product labeling on shoppers’ purchasing decisions?
A: Yes. I will talk about our two separate studies: The first is thinking about consumer acceptance of GMOs across different food types; grain crops versus fruits and vegetables versus animal products, if a GMO trait is available. In addition, we wanted to find out if the degree of processing affects purchasing decisions. We designed a survey and crafted up questions that would get at these issues.
The second study looks at labeling of babyfood products at the grocery store.
Q: Is that a category with a higher concentration of non-GMO labels? I imagine with your growing family, you have some personal experience shopping that aisle!
A: That’s for sure! I have three small kids at home, so I’ve been in the babyfood aisle in the grocery store, and I see quite a lot of non-GMO labels. It seems to be one of the few product categories where several brands do have that language. At the same time, there are plenty that don’t, but that have an organic or natural sticker. Babyfood tends to be merchandised all together. A lot of retailers will put the whole category together rather than split conventional and organic.
The second survey uses Nielsen Homescan data. We target households that buy babyfood, what kinds and the characteristics, and we know something about these households, so we are able to define what types are likely to buy a non-GMO product.
Q: Could you give us a sample of some key findings? Did the results confirm your hypotheses?
A: First is the research survey we circulated to 1,000 people. I worked with colleagues Dr. Brandon McFadden, University of Florida, and Dr. Jayson Lusk, Oklahoma State, who does a blog about food policy, and wrote a popular press book called Food Police.
It covers a lot of policy issues related to food, and he thinks very carefully about how consumers react to information labels more generally.
These results are being published in Biotechnology Journal, in a piece titled: Which Biotech Foods are Most Acceptable to the Public?
In the survey, we said, here are some food products, and we listed a total of six: a grain crop, a fruit, and a meat product, in both fresh and processed versions — corn, apples and beef, and corn chips, apple juice and beef hotdog. We designed questions to determine the participants’ product preferences, how desirable or undesirable, how much do you enjoy these products? Then we posed the same questions, now with the GMO versions of the same product.
Q: Do you explain what GMOs are? Do you provide a definition?
A: This was a question at the end of a larger survey. In this case, we intentionally didn’t define what a GMO was. Jayson (Lusk) and those who study these things find that if you define something in a positive or negative light, it will bias results. Whatever impression they had in mind is what we wanted them to tell us. There is evidence that defining GMO as how it reduces pesticide use or increases yields, for instance, or conversely with a negative slant, can influence the survey participants’ acceptance.
If I was to boil this down, what we’ve found is not too surprising but encouraging. These people were more willing to accept GMO corn than apples, and slightly more willing to accept GMO apples than meat. Grains were most acceptable, fruits were in the middle, and meats were least acceptable.
Q: Did the results differ significantly between the fresh and processed varieties?
A: On the processed side, there was a strong willingness to accept GMO-processed products, regardless of type. In particular, willingness to accept GMOs was stronger for the processed apples and beef, relative to their fresh versions. With the corn, there was a relatively high acceptance of both fresh and processed versions with less differentiation between the two.
We asked, what are various attributes of the GMO product that make it less or more desirable? We had a series of questions: Would you be more willing to accept a GM variety if it protected the farmer’s crops or reduced carbon footprint or food waste, increased yields, reduced pesticides, or improved nutritional content or lowered costs? We focused here on positive attributes.
Q: What did you learn?
A: Some of the things most important to consumers when looking at the different possibilities: whether the GMO product was able to reduce pesticide use, and also whether it could keep crop production in the U.S. The highest ranking was to keep crop production in the U.S.; the Number One reason to purchase a GMO product. Reducing the cost or improving the nutritional content were the second and third reasons to adopt GMO foods.
These were the attributes that would make them more accepting of GMOs. Some of the least important was whether it saves farmers time in the field, or increase farmers yield. The bottom line: they liked it if it had direct consumer benefits.
The take-home message is that consumer willingness to accept GMO foods differs on the type of product — grain, produce, or meat — and it matters how close to fresh and how much processing has occurred — the more processed, the more willing to cope with the GMO ingredient. In this study with Jayson Lusk and Brandon McFadden, the key result is that fresh or processed matters.
Q: How can this information help the industry in its approach to GMOs?
A: This coincides with the debate we’re having in the apple industry with the Arctic apple. It doesn’t change the nutritional content or price to consumers. It’s really just a cosmetic change, and a lot of apples are consumed as a fresh product. Based on our research, there is a real question of whether or not consumers in the U.S. will accept a GM product like this.
Q: What more can be learned by your second study?
A: To shift over to the second study looking at babyfood, we took a two-pronged approach to help us think more about consumer acceptance of GMOs. We used Nielsen Homescan data tracking the babyfood category, where some products carry non-GMO labels. While our study is ongoing, we have early results in learning what people are thinking about and what they are willing to pay for a non-GMO product. There are some non-GMO labels sprinkled throughout the store, but in babyfood, that labeling is more significant.
Q: In certain instances, a product in a category is labeled non-GMO to gain favor with anti-GMO shoppers, even when the entire category is GMO-free. Doesn’t that create some confusion?
A: GMOs are fairly limited to corn or soybeans, so if a product says non-GMO, where all products in that category are non-GMO, then it is false advertising. You see this with cholesterol, where it’s not an ingredient in a category, and the manufacturer highlights no cholesterol on the label. Then consumers wonder if other products displayed nearby side do have cholesterol, even if they don’t.
There are babyfoods where corn and soybean are used, so the GMO labeling is applicable. This study is ongoing, led by Percy Fang, masters student in our department, with Dr. Ed McLaughlin and Rod Hawkes. The four of us are working together. We’re in the early stages but starting to piece together results.
In the babyfood category, some products have an organic label, some natural, some non-GMO, and some multiple labels, organic and non-GMO.
Q: Isn’t organic also non-GMO?
A: The tricky thing is to get USDA-organic certified. If the firm has gone through hoops to become organic-certified, then by default the product is non-GMO. But not all firms decide to include both stickers. It’s hard for us to know how much of the information consumers know.
This is a data set that tracks purchases for 60,000 households in the U.S. We focus on those households that purchase babyfood. Out of those, we look at what they are willing to pay for babyfood, which is a good measure of what they are willing to pay for particular attributes, with organic a price-premium, and when it has a non-GMO label, a price equal to or succeeding the organic premium. The non-GMO label is the stronger signal.
Surprisingly, natural doesn’t resonate with consumers. In fact, it decreases their willingness to purchase. In a shelf space where there are competing words, consumers place greater value on organic and non-GMO. Babyfood is a category where you see all these words being used on labels. It allows us to analyze real data collected from consumers.
Q: Does it matter what types of ingredients are in the babyfood products? For instance, if it’s just a puree of peas in the jar, with no corn or soybeans…
A: There are different types of babyfood — dinner, fruits and vegetables, meats — and we look across subcategories of babyfood to think about how consumers place value on the organic and non-GMO labeling.
Are consumers of babyfood fruits and vegetables willing to pay a higher premium for organic and non-GMO labels? After all, there are so few produce items that have GMOs, just some papaya and squash, although there is a lot of research being done in commercializing fruits and vegetables. It’s interesting to see how information resonates with consumers when they are not connected to R&D or lack an understanding of what GMO products are commercially available.
Q: Do you take into account consumer demographics, income levels, and other characteristics and shopping patterns?
A: Yes. We said, let’s look at different types of consumers and who buys organic and non-GMO labeled products relative to those who buy babyfood without that label.
With the non-GMO group, looking at what kinds of people are purchasing these products might give us a hint of who would be more interested in non-GMO products more generally.
There’s something going on here. When we separate babyfood consumers who choose product with non-GMO stickers versus those who buy without non-GMO stickers, we find some interesting results. When we divide the grocery store into different categories, if there are people who buy organic foods, they are most likely to buy non-GMO foods. For individual or broader categories within the grocery store, those paying a higher percentage of their bill on dairy and produce are ones who tend to gravitate to non-GMO labels on babyfood.
Conversely, those who spend higher amounts of their bill on protein, prepared foods and snacks are all indicators they are not likely to buy babyfoods with non-GMO labels.
Q: Wouldn’t a consumer’s income level play a role in such decisions?
A: Income levels are a very strong predictor of those gravitating to non-GMO. And age has a negative effect; as one’s age increases, the likelihood of buying non-GMO falls. Younger generations are more interested in non-GMO products.
We also have variable geography, with very strong regional non-GMO preferences in the Northeast and the West. We find the opposite effect in the South and Midwest. The Mid-Atlantic doesn’t have as much of an effect.
If you live in a major metropolitan region, it correlates with a positive effect on buying non-GMO labels. Also, the number of kids under the age of 18 in the household has a positive effect of purchasing non-GMO label products. Those spending more on dairy and fresh produce are more likely to gravitate to non-GMO.
Q: Any surprises in your research for attendees to ponder as The New York Produce Show approaches?
A: A lot of this seems pretty intuitive. Some things didn’t have an effect as I would have expected, such as education or marital status. I was a little bit surprised to see consumers’ willingness to accept non-GMO was bigger than organic.
A few years ago when products came out labeled local, everyone said local is the new organic. Now we’re finding non-GMO is trumping organic. The general findings seem to be as strong or stronger with fruits and vegetables. Our research is still a bit exploratory, but may generate some discussion with the industry on what direction to go.
One of the interesting questions is whether consumer acceptance is actually a very important issue. Our sense is that the problem is not consumer acceptance, but retail acceptance.
Retailers have a different cost-benefit analysis in looking at GMOs. No produce item accounts for a significant percentage of the retailer’s sales. So even if a new GMO pepper would double pepper sales, if the price is pickets outside the store, boycotts or derogatory comments in the press, etc., even a tiny interest group could make a retailer feel it is not worth the hassle.
The Wegman family deserves incredible praise because in spite of the controversy over irradiation, it has sold irradiated ground beef, an act that has probably given great joy to the sick and has possibly even saved lives as people with compromised immune systems have been able to safely consume a hamburger.
But such courage may be tougher to summon on the GMO issue, as GMO items will probably replace, not supplement, non-GMO foods.
It is an important and timely issue, and we thank Professor Rickard for coming to New York City.
We hope that you, too, will be part of the discussion.
You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.
And New York is magical that time of year, so bring someone special and have them join in on the Spouse Program, which includes High Tea at the Plaza. Let us know if you are interested here.
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Many thanks to Professor Brad Rickard and to Cornell University for sharing the most up-to-date research with the broader industry. We look forward to seeing everyone at The New York Produce Show and Conference.