Consumer attitudes about GM food don’t match their spending habits

A study earlier this year for Health Canada has found that consumer perception of genetically modified food is still not positive.

Even though GM food has been on the market for decades, 61 percent of survey respondents and focus group participants said the words “genetic modification” are negative and only 26 percent said they would be comfortable eating GM food.

The study was conducted in March and designed to determine gaps in consumer knowledge and understanding regarding GM food.

However, how consumers respond to surveys doesn’t necessarily mesh with their buying habits, says a University of Saskatchewan professor.

Stuart Smyth, who researches biotechnology and innovation, said 76 percent of survey respondents still said they buy on price.

That means they are not willing to pay the higher price for food labelled GM-free or organic.

“They may respond to a survey and say, ‘absolutely I want this or I want that,’ but when the rubber meets the road and they’re in the grocery store, it’s ‘get in, get what you want and get out as quick as you can,’ ” he said.

“Organics is really only an option for the extremely wealthy and the very upper income class. It’s not an option for middle and lower income people in Canada.”

The study also found that 78 percent of respondents believe GM food should be labelled as such, yet 45 percent of the respondents said they rarely or never looked at labels.

“I struggle to see how they can get to 78 percent of a concern level,” Smyth said. “Consumer purchasing decisions don’t correlate to what they’re expressing.”

Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, said labelling would solve many consumer issues.

“I’m one of the few that has advocated for probably 15 years now for two things. One, we need to embrace the technology; genetically modified crops are good for agriculture. And secondly, we need to label food products,” he said.

Connecting the technology to consumers will help educate them, he added.

Charlebois said farmers should be publicly taking a stance on the issue as part of that education process.

“Farmers actually know how to use the technology,” he said.

“They are great stewards of the land and the environment and people trust farmers. Why aren’t they out there, not preaching the gospel, but basically making a case for what’s going on in their fields?”

He said their opponents’ case is weakening as more studies show the safety of GM food. It’s an opportune time for farmers to engage, but it will take time, he added.

“To build public trust you’re looking at a risk communication strategy that would extend over probably two decades at the very least, to get to the point where people can actually trust the technology and the use of that technology within food systems,” Charlebois said.

Smyth said governments, agriculture and academics have all done a poor job of communicating the technology, and he too sees it as a long-term effort.

“It took 20 years for the anti-smoking movement to gain traction,” he said. “We may have to continue this battle for another decade until consumers come around.”

He is less convinced that labelling will help, noting that some products now labelled GM-free would never be GM in the first place. He also said he doubts people would be willing to pay the extra cost that labelling would entail.

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