Consumers more likely to choose GM if benefits are clear

Thanks to the comments by Alan Matthews, we now have the correct source for the captioned 2011 paper:

Source: Mather, D.W. Knight, J.G., Insch A., et al. (2011). Social Stigma and Consumer Benefits: Trade-Offs in Adoption of Genetically Modified Foods. Science Communication. DOI: 10.1177/1075547011428183.

The link that I first referenced was an echo of a press release [PDF] by the European Commission DG Environment news servicet. This field choice-modeling experiment was performed by a group of researchers at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. As the full paper is paywalled I have emailed Dr. Knight [do check out his faculty page at U. of Otago] to inquire the availability of a review copy.

This study is based upon a clever experimental design, with interesting policy implications (e.g., for NZ). The study design highlights a fact that is not obvious to the “man on the street”. Which is that there are well-funded professional interest groups that keep the media focused on a specific message: modern precision agricultural technology is bad, while “organic” or 19th century farming is good. There is no countering media campaign. One would think that the evil Monsanto would be so rich and powerful that they would control this conversation. But as far as I am aware companies such as Monsanto just keep their head down, while through lobbying they attempt to prevent the closure of any more markets.

These anti-technology messages are so pervasive in our rich-world social environment,  that it is risky to counter the community consensus. That consensus: good people believe that local organic is the most nutritious choice for the planet and for people, while bad people argue that there are critical benefits to society from modern agriculture, including GM foods. Certainly in the communities we frequent, e.g., around Stanford University, one can easily cause an uncomfortable silence by saying anything positive about the importance of industrial-scale agriculture. Mentioning anything positive about GM will likely start an angry argument.  

So, how do we test the hypothesis that, in survey/interview situations, significant numbers slant their responses so as to place themselves within the “good people grouping”? The subject study appears to be attempting such a test.

We will be keeping a watch for review and commentary. The abstract:

Attitudes toward genetically modified (GM) foods have been extensively studied, but there are very few studies of actual consumer purchasing behavior regarding GM foods offering a consumer benefit. Using a field choice-modeling experiment, the authors investigate the trade-off between price and social desirability in consumer choices with regard to conventional, organic, and GM fruit. What consumers say they will choose in a survey and what they actually choose in a real-purchase situation may differ substantially when their decision is framed by a socially charged issue such as genetic modification. The results are analyzed in relation to established principles of diffusion of innovation.

From the DG Environment news service:

Many studies into consumer attitudes towards GM foods have assessed people’s willingness to buy GM in hypothetical situations. However, evidence suggests that consumers do not necessarily act in the way that they say they will. This means that people who say they would not buy GM foods when surveyed may indeed buy GM foods in real life.

To observe consumers making choices in a real life situation, the researchers set up street-side fruit stalls in six different countries: Belgium, France, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK. The stalls sold strawberries, grapes and cherries clearly displaying three different labels: ‘organic, Biogrow certified’, ‘low residue, local designation’ and ‘100% spray-free, genetically modified’. If customers asked about the GM fruits, the vendors explained that they contained genes that made them produce their own natural insecticide. In fact, all the fruits were of the same local, low-spray (non-GM) varieties.

In addition, the researchers conducted paper surveys in these countries, which presented respondents with the same purchasing decision and photographs of the fruit. There were surprising differences between the choices that the fruit stall customers made and the results of the surveys. In the consumer surveys, when fruits labelled ‘organic’ were priced 15% higher than market value and ‘GM’ fruits were discounted by 15%, the most popular choice reported for New Zealander and Swedish customers was organic. However, at the actual fruit stalls, GM labelled fruit was most popular.

German customers indicated in the survey that they preferred low residue fruit (priced at market value), but were also most likely to buy GM labelled fruit at the stalls. Given the same pricing structure, GM labelled fruit was the most or second most popular choice in three out of the five European countries at the fruit stalls, despite GM being the least popular choice given in surveys in every country, when all prices were set at market value. Market share for GM labelled fruit at the stalls ranged between 15-43%, depending on price, across the five European countries.

After making their purchases, 100 customers were asked about their decisions. Price was a common factor. Many customers who bought organic or ordinary (‘low residue’) fruit said they did so out of habit and some thought that the organic fruits looked or tasted better. Even having tasted them, some consumers did not later believe that all the fruits were the same.

These results suggest that surveys may have exaggerated the extent of negative feeling towards GM products. The researchers conclude that ‘social expectancy’ leads people to make different choices in a survey situation than they would make in a real-life consumer situation. In other words, a person may be more likely to choose a cheaper, GM product if they believe no-one is watching, but in a survey situation, there is a greater desire to make a socially acceptable choice.

The researchers point out their reasoning was inferred – not evident – from the comments they collected. However, they think their findings show that GM foods will be more accepted by consumers as long as they are cheaper and the advantages, such as lower price and lack of pesticide residues, are clearly labelled or explained. 

If you are in Wellington, New Zealand on Wednesday, 29 August 2012 you will have the opportunity to attend Dr. Knight’s lecture. Unfortunately, we will not sail to south NZ until about November. Hopefully videos of these lectures are published for the international audience. Meanwhile we will be seeking out more of the work by Dr. Knight and colleagues. One of their areas of research is of great interest – what would be the impact on the NZ brand of liberalizing NZ agriculture?

Exploding the Myth : Will genetic modification harm New Zealand’s clean, green image?

2 thoughts on “Consumers more likely to choose GM if benefits are clear

  1. The study is
    Source: Mather, D.W. Knight, J.G., Insch A., et al. (2011). Social Stigma and Consumer Benefits: Trade-Offs in Adoption of Genetically Modified Foods. Science Communication. DOI: 10.1177/1075547011428183.

    Note that the study was reported by the DG Environment news service but was not funded or associated with the European Commission in any way. See the press release at

  2. Thanks heaps Alan. I’m happy to see the research was done by fellow Kiwis.

    I have revised that post completely based upon your info, and have emailed Dr. Knight to inquire the availability of a review copy.

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