Opinion: Perception of biotech foods boosted by consumer benefits

January 07 , 2015

By OSF founder and president Neal Carter

Neal holding red apple1 - OSF - sqSince 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.



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  1. John Pandol says:

    Consumers are not only not aware of the benefits of biotech but of the role of advanced genetics(molecular and non-molecular) in there diets. People never knew that the super sweet golden pineapple, super sweet corn and grape tomatoes were the benefits of genetic research. The varieties that permit year around blueberries did not exist in the 20th century, pure genetics. People don’t know because production agriculture thinks it’s supposed to be like Little House on the Prairie. When we loose the overalls and put on lab coats and act like the Star Trek industry that we are, loud and proud, consumers will know.

  2. I don’t recall Alfred Nobel, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs embarking on educational outreach.

    Why not quell the opposition to biotech from organic activists instead?

  3. Charles Beresford says:

    There are very fundamental flaws in your statements about biotech foods and consumers, the extreme dangers to Ecological balance, Nature’s Health and Consumer’s Health. First of all, if biotech foods are so good why have they not have been announced on the labels of food products? The MAJORITY of people do want to know if a food product is GE or has a GMO ingredient. Why are the GMO developers SO OPPOSED to the label disclosure? This, to start with, is a major controversial issue. Are you aware that there are 2 million Canadians and most likely over 20 million Americans with undiagnosed weird new digestive disorders? Read MacLeans magazine of October 7, 2013. I have dealt with GM produce, I got sick eating the product while eating the product as confirmed by my gastroenterologist. I stopped importing it. I have been all my life in the food businness. My father was one of the founding teachers of the Agrarian University of Lima, Peru. He did a lot of genetic research. The Russians have just banned all GMO production and importation. Most EU countries have banned them too. Based on research. The negative factual side effects on the Environment and long term side effects on people’s health, on some people like me there are shot term or immediate side effects, far outweigh the “apparent” benefits. Nature never has made an attempt to mix genes from animal kingdom or from pathogens, with genes from the vegetable kingdom, like the Ring Spot Virus gene mixed with the Hawaiian Papaya gene. Or fish genes in strawberries or tomatoes. The molecular structure of those foods gets changed, our bodies get affected, Nature’s balance affected. I am just finishing a major Market Research on the Potential for the Introduction and Sales Development for Organic Products for a country in South America, commissioned by the government of that country, the factual findings, Organics growing at a rate of 20 % a year, in Canada and the USA main driving factor, consumers trying to avoid buying unlabelled GMO’s !!! Especially now knowing that between GM produce and excess pesticides, caused main by pesticide resistant GM crops, a vast number of bees are dead, they are responsible for 32 % of pollination, only half the Monark butterflies are flying down to Mexico, the rest are dead. There is only one reason behind GMO development, and that is called GREED, which does not have LIFE SUSTAINABILITY as a PRIORITY. Besides the more higher awareness principle that a Supreme Intelligence has Generated, Operated and Destroyed created elements (when necessary) over billions of years, and the Delicate Evolution of Life as we know it is based on Fundamental Laws we have to Learn how to Harmonize and Work with and that is called Wisdom, which Must Guide Knowkedge.