Opinion: Perception of biotech foods boosted by consumer benefits
By OSF founder and president Neal Carter
Since commercial introduction, agricultural biotechnology has become the fastest adopted crop technology in history and there are currently 18 million farmers worldwide growing biotech crops. Clearly, farmers would not be embracing biotech crops at such a high rate if they did not experience substantial benefits.
However, despite this unprecedented success, many consumers have been hesitant to embrace biotech crops. Why? One reason is that the vast majority of biotech traits to date have offered agronomic benefits, rather than direct benefits for consumers.
The importance of educational outreach
Not only has this resulted in the value of ag-biotech being much more readily apparent to producers than consumers, it's also resulted in an education gap. Since the companies who developed the "first wave" of biotech crops naturally focused on their own consumers, farmers, there was not a great deal of educational outreach to the general public. Additionally, public interest in food production simply wasn't at the same level as it is today.
So, while producers are well-versed on the safety and benefits of biotech crops, consumers have:
a) Seen little of these benefits firsthand
b) Have not been adequately educated on these products
Consumers are increasingly interested in learning what's in their food and how it's produced and, accordingly, ag-biotech is receiving more media coverage than ever before. However, biotechnology is a complex subject, and there is a great deal of misinformation that the public must sift through, which has led to confusion and mistrust. As a result, the science and agricultural communities have been devoting a great deal of effort in recent years on public outreach efforts, and these efforts are poised to continue and expand.
In our view, though, the biggest game-changer of all for consumer acceptance will be biotech crops with direct consumer benefits. And, we are now at the cusp of realizing these benefits with the "second wave" of biotech crops.
Biotech crops with consumer benefits
Per research generated by the NPD Group and IFIC (International Food Information Council), the vast majority of consumers don't avoid biotech foods and aren't willing to pay more to buy non-GMO. However, some producers and retailers have felt pressure from a small, but extremely vocal, minority who are opposed to ag-biotech. This minority clearly does not represent the average consumer, though, and a great example of this was General Mills removing the biotech ingredients from Original Cheerios late in 2013 following pressure from anti-GMO groups. The switch was costly for General Mills, actually reduced nutrient value, and resulted in no sales boost whatsoever.
That said, even if most consumers are unconcerned by biotech foods, they haven't had much reason to actively seek them out. That looks to be changing very soon, though.
A 2014 survey from IFIC found that over two-thirds of consumers would be likely to purchase biotech foods that have: more healthful fats (72%), reduced carcinogens (69%), enhanced nutritional benefits (67%), and many other enhancements as well.
Biotech crops with traits like these are already in the pipeline, and some are even beginning to receive commercial approval. One recent example is a non-browning potato from J.R. Simplot's Plant Sciences business called the "Innate" potato. It's been engineered to resist black-spot bruising, which can help reduce food waste, and also produces less acrylamide (a potential carcinogen) when fried.
Our own small, grower-led company Okanagan Specialty Fruits has a similar product nearing approval in Canada and the U.S. – nonbrowning Arctic® apples. We have the ability to specifically silence any apple variety's browning genes, and this simple change offers tangible benefits that consumers can get behind.
By making apples more convenient, Arctic apples can boost consumption of one of the world's healthiest foods, significantly reduce unnecessary food waste, and they better retain healthful nutrients, many of which are "burned up" in the browning reaction, when they're cut, bitten, or bruised. Plus, they are one of the first biotech foods that consumers can see and taste the benefits of firsthand.
Experiencing the fruit and learning the direct benefits for themselves results in tremendous support. For example, the following percentage of shoppers who participated in a recent mall intercept study said these statements made them more likely to buy Arctic apples:
• 86% - Cut fruit can be stored in the fridge for several days without browning
• 85% - Can save consumers money by reducing waste
• 83% - Higher levels of health promoting nutrients after cutting
Additionally, we also found that the more consumers learned about the science behind our apples, the greater their support. And, it should go without saying that sliced Arctic apples scored substantially higher than their conventional counterparts in eye-appeal.
With educational outreach taking off, and increasing numbers of biotech crops with direct, tangible benefits soon to be available, the future for ag-biotech is bright. This is great news for the produce industry, as these biotech tools will help us create new exciting, value-added products for consumers, and better equip us for the never-ending challenge of keeping up with evolving consumer demands.
For more, please visit: www.okspecialtyfruits.com for corporate information and www.arcticapples.com for consumer information.