Genetically modified wheat hasn’t yet been introduced into the U.S. market. When that happens, public acceptance of the product may depend on what people know about it. Currently, they don’t know much.
A Food Safety Consortium survey conducted by Kansas State University indicated that most respondents had little to no prior knowledge about biotechnology, but about the same number of people said they would still purchase genetically modified (GM) wheat products. But when provided information about opposition to GM products, respondents were more likely to refrain from buying GM products.
“GM wheat has been on hold for a few years, but I think it’s eventually going to be a reality,” said Sean Fox, the KSU professor of agricultural economics who supervised the survey.
The cause for potential concern among marketers is that wheat is a crop directly consumed by humans, so some inherent opposition to genetic modification could hamper willingness to buy products with GM wheat in them. Fox noted that GM versions of corn, soybeans, canola and cotton have not generally been used for direct human consumption, so little opposition has arisen from consumer advocacy groups.
Fox’s survey of households in metropolitan Kansas City included a definition of GM as “a process in which a plant or animal’s genetic makeup is altered by implanting genes from other organisms.” Everyone received that definition. Then the survey was split these ways:
• Half the households received a survey containing a statement about opposition to GM that said “consumer and environmental groups such as the Organic Consumer Association, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are very opposed to GM technology because they believe it creates significant health risks for consumers and will damage the environment.”
• The other half of households received a survey that had this informative statement: “Current crops that are produced with GM technology include soybeans, corn and canola. These crops are processed into ingredients that are frequently used in bread.”
• One-fourth of the households received both of the above statements; another one-fourth received neither.
Among all the households, 68 percent said they would purchase GM wheat-based products, although 67 percent of the households indicated they had not heard about GM processing or knew little about it. The respondents were given the opportunity to decide whether they would pay more to buy a non-GM version of a wheat-based product, and 72 percent said they would not.
But the households who received the survey containing the statement about opposition to GM products were less likely to accept GM-processed wheat products and were willing to pay an additional 12 cents a loaf of bread to avoid GM wheat.
“Providing them with information about opposition made them more likely, or increased their willingness to pay, to avoid it,” Fox said.
Telling consumers that many wheat products already contain some GM ingredients didn’t affect their decision whether or not to purchase those products, regardless of whether they were told about the opposition to GM.
“It’s probably difficult to find food products that don’t contain some GM ingredients,” Fox said. “Not a lot of people are aware of that. But telling them that didn’t make a lot of difference. It really didn’t enhance their acceptance of GM wheat. But the overall acceptance was pretty high.”
Under current U.S. regulations, it isn’t necessary for product labels to indicate if the ingredients are genetically modified. If GM wheat goes on the market and into bread, that fact won’t need to be noted on the label unless federal regulations change. “Most bread right now contains some GM ingredients because it contains soy oil or soy flour,” Fox said. “It doesn’t have to be labeled.”
Fox pointed out that consumer activist groups opposed to GM have targeted GM wheat if moves are made to put it on the market. Although the KSU survey seems to show that domestic wheat consumption might not be harmed by introduction of genetic modification, exports could be another matter.
Overseas opposition to GM products of any kind could hurt American exports. About half of U.S.-grown wheat is exported to other countries for sale, and some U.S. wheat producers are worried about warnings from Asian wheat buyers and consumers who say they won’t buy imported GM wheat.
Source: University of Arkansas