Earning Trust

Published online: Jan 29, 2022 Articles Tyrell Marchant with contributions from The Center for Food Integrity
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This article appears in the January 2022 issue of Potato Grower.

You’d think a technology that improves the safety and sustainability of food would be embraced by the consuming public. Who doesn’t want safe food that’s produced in a way that protects our planet, especially at a time when interest in sustainability is skyrocketing?

You’d be surprised.

Consider the critics who surfaced after the introduction of the Innate potato, genetically modified to produce healthier and more abundant crops, reduce blackspot bruising and lower levels of asparagine, which reduces formation of the potentially toxic acrylamide when potatoes are baked and fried. Why wouldn’t everyone want these potatoes in their kitchen pantries?

Consumers are complicated. However, new research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) sheds light on the driving factors of consumer acceptance or rejection of technology. Why are they okay with some technologies but not others?

The new findings provide farmers with insights to advance the technology that’s crucial to U.S. agriculture in maintaining a safe, sustainable food supply.

“Agriculture has a rich history of innovation,” says Charlie Arnot, CFI CEO. “As farming and food production practices integrate more technology, it’s increasingly important for those in agriculture to understand the keys to successfully building support for technology so they can continue to make progress.”

In the research, conducted with support from the United Soybean Board, CFI measured consumer attitudes regarding four agriculture and food technologies with the overarching goal to identify the drivers of consumer acceptance and rejection of technology as a whole. The technologies used as prompts in this study included gene editing in plants, gene editing in animals, plant-based meat, and cultured (cell-based) meat.

Acceptance Drivers

Several consistent themes regarding support for and rejection of technology emerged in the study. Key drivers for acceptance include:

  • Belief that food resulting from technology use is safe to consume
  • Readily available information on food produced through technology, which enables an informed choice of voluntary exposure
  • Benefits that outweigh perceived risks
  • Understanding that technology can help ensure a consistent supply of food
  • Understanding that technology promotes greater sustainability by making more with a lesser environmental impact

“Consumers are concerned about the direct impact on them, such as, ‘Is the food I’m consuming safe and healthy?’” says Arnot. “That’s why there’s greater concern about technology like pesticides and gene editing, compared to drone technology or GPS systems.”

The research shows that consumers also trust in the organizations that approve and monitor the impact of technologies, and they prefer third-party, independent oversight, along with information from that third-party source. In addition, for the technology to be accepted, the benefits must outweigh the perceived risk of consuming the end product.

“This study shows acceptance of ag technology is highly dependent on the tangible nature of the technology output,” says Arnot. “In other words, ingredients are not as visible to consumers, while end products like potatoes sold in the produce section or meat sold in restaurants are very visible. The more tangible the product and its perceived impact, the greater the need to use a strategic approach to earn acceptance.”

When comparing gene-edited plants and gene-edited animals, those growing crops have an advantage. The research showed one-third of consumers had a positive perception of gene editing in plants, one third had a negative perception, and the remaining third were neutral. For animals, 54 percent had a negative perception; only 18 percent had a positive percept ion.

“That’s because people typically have a strong affinity for animals,” says Arnot. “There’s an emotional connection. We are conflicted at times because animals play different roles in our lives, and we want to assure their well-being.”

Additional findings show that Gen Z, millennials and early adopters (those that actively research and share information) are more accepting of technology to solve challenges. Generally, consumers in these groups also believe they are more knowledgeable about agriculture technology.

“It’s important that we engage these particular consumer segments, as they will continue to drive broader consumer acceptance and have growing purchase power to help shape the future of food production,” Arnot says. “Assure them that the safety and sustainability of growing food is a top priority.”

While the research shows only one in 10 consumers feel they know a lot about the use of technology to grow food in the U.S., nearly two-thirds have a very positive or somewhat positive impression of the use of technology and of U.S. agriculture in general.

“That points to a tremendous opportunity for farmers to keep the momentum going and engage on the many benefits of innovation in producing safe, nutritious food to meet the needs of consumers and protect our planet,” says Arnot.

CFI detailed findings during a recent one-hour webinar, the recording of which is available at www.foodintegrity.org.

To conduct the research, CFI applied a model on consumer acceptance of food technology published in the June 2020 issue of Nature Food by Siegrist and Hartmann. CFI research was conducted via survey in July 2021 across the U.S. and included a random sample representative of the larger population.  

 

The Center for Food Integrity is a not-for-profit organization that helps today’s food system earn consumer trust. CFI members and project partners, who represent the diversity of the food system, are committed to providing accurate information and working together to address important issues in food and agriculture. The Center does not lobby or advocate for individual companies or brands.

For more information, visit www.foodintegrity.org.