Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Biotechnology
Shoppers and Trends
January 27, 2008
Consumer Attitudes Towards Food Biotechnology
SHOPPERS & TRENDS
Support of food biotechnology methods is on the rise, according to a recent study by the International Food Information Council (IFIC). The study, which surveyed 1,000 adults, was designed to track consumer trends in this area by examining familiarity with and perceptions towards food biotechnology.
IFIC has actually conducted this survey annually over the last decade, making modifications to questions each year as the field evolved. This year’s study shows that awareness of food biotechnology remains relatively stable compared to 2006 numbers, but fewer consumers are worried about its use in food. When asked about the safety of the food supply, less than one percent of consumers list food biotechnology as a food safety concern.
Dr. Rachel Cheatham, Director of Science and Health Communications for IFIC, says that acceptance of food biotechnology has grown at a slow but steady pace over the last decade. Awareness of the positive aspects of food biotechnology is really driving overall attitudes toward the topic, she says. Among those who have learned about the advantages of food biotechnology, especially in the area of nutrition and health, 33% believe that this science will provide benefits to their family within the next five years.
In short, food biotechnology uses plant science and genetics to improve food quality and how it is produced. With this technology, scientists can transfer desirable characteristics from one organism to another. For example, if one plant is naturally disease resistant, scientists can attempt to harness that quality and share it with a plant that is more prone to illness. This type of alteration can reduce the need for pesticides. Some other potential benefits of food biotechnology? Increased crop yields – and better tasting, more nutritious food.
The advantage of food biotechnology over crossbreeding (an age-old method of genetically altering plants) is that the process takes less time and can be more precise. Instead of sharing the entire range of an organism’s DNA, as is true in the case of crossbreeding, biotechnology allows for the selection of a single, desired trait. The FDA regulates foods produced through biotechnology in the same way that they regulate foods produced by other methods. Special labeling is only required when the nutritional content of an item is changed, or if a potential allergen is added. This type of labeling is supported by 61% of those surveyed.
Two types of food biotechnology – plant and animal – were discussed in the study. Thirty-three percent of consumers have a somewhat favorable or very favorable opinion of plant biotechnology. Twenty-four percent have favorable impressions of animal biotechnology, up from 19% in 2006. Impressions of genomics and genetic engineering are improving as well, with 22% of those polled viewing “animal cloning” in a positive light. In 2006, only 16% of respondents held that view. This view jumps to 49% if foods from cloned animals are determined to be safe by the FDA. In fact, this month, the FDA announced that food from healthy clones of cattle, swine and goat is as safe as food from non-cloned animals, though more research is needed.
“This statement from the FDA is a big deal in terms of helping consumers gain a greater acceptance toward cloning, especially since their assessment is thorough and based in science,” says Cheatham. “It will be interesting to see how the numbers in our study change next year as a result of these FDA safety determinations.”
Although support of plant biotechnology exceeds support of animal biotechnology,nearly half of Americans (46%) are willing to buy meat, milk and eggs from cloned animals if they are FDA approved. That same number jumps to 61% when cloning is referred to as “genetic engineering” – supporting the notion that perception is key when making food biotechnology palatable to consumers.
“Our biggest challenge is still the education component and helping consumers understand that plant and animal biotechnology, which can include cloning in some cases, is a natural evolution of the technologies we’ve been using all along in producing our food supply,” says Cheatham. “As consumer awareness grows, so does their positive attitude toward the topic.”
Consumers are also impressed by biotechnology that provides environmental benefits, reduces the amount of feed needed by animals and increases the amount of food produced. When it comes to flavor, 67% said that they would be somewhat or very likely to purchase produce that had been modified by biotechnology. About two-thirds of consumers have a positive reaction to the benefits of animal biotechnology as it related to the quality and safety of their food.
Even with this growing positive outlook on food biotechnology, 53% of those surveyed say they don’t know enough about it to form an opinion. After all, only 23% of consumers believe that foods developed using biotechnology are currently available in stores. While they are right that products from cloned animals are not yet available in stores, some corn and soy products produced through biotechnology are indeed on the shelves (though they are mostly used as food ingredients in other products). Cheatham says that more outreach is needed to educate consumers about this rapidly growing field.
“It will be years before we have any meat or milk on grocery store shelves that come from the offspring of clones. In the meantime, we can help improve consumer understanding of both plant and animal biotechnology by getting the information out there, calming fears, and making sure we are educating consumers from a scientific perspective.”
For more information about animal cloning, visit http://ific.org/publications/qa/cloningqa.cfm.