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MAFES measures consumer opinions
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Researchers at Mississippi State University's Agribusiness Institute are in the process of determining consumer attitudes to genetically modified foods.
Genetic modifications of food are typically done to make the item easier for the farmer to produce or to make it more desirable for the consumer because of new or enhanced traits. For example, tomatoes have been modified to stay fresh on the shelf longer, a benefit to consumers, and soybeans have been developed to be resistant to a common weed killer, a benefit to farmers.
The MSU researchers have completed one preliminary study in Mississippi to determine whether consumers feel differently about genetically modified foods if the change was made to develop a better product for them.
Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist with the Mississippi Agriculurural and Forestry Experiment Service, conducted the first survey for the Agribusiness Institute and is working on future surveys. These surveys will measure U.S. and European opinions on the subject of genetically enhanced foods.
"We want to find out if people change their opinions about genetically modified foods if there are different reasons for making the modification," Lusk said. "Will someone who opposes a genetic modification that aids the producer still oppose genetic engineering if it gives them a better product?"
This survey was conducted among Mississippi consumers, and the results have been compiled. Results indicate that consumers are more accepting of corn chips that have been genetically modified to increase shelf life rather than modified to increase farmers' crop yields. Results also showed that factors such as brand name are more important in determining consumer choice than the type of corn used in chip production.
A nationwide survey this summer will seek to gather 1,000 responses from U.S. consumers.
Bruce Trail from the University of Reading in England visited the Agribusiness Institute in March to discuss European issues. The MSU team will work with him to design research programs for Europe and the United States that will test for similarities and differences in consumer attitudes.
"Having this information should give ag producers, processors and all those involved in the chain bringing a farm product to the grocery store shelf an idea of the long-term potential for consumer acceptance of their products and the long-term demand for genetically engineered foods," Lusk said. "If we find this is going to be an issue that consumers will be increasingly concerned about, perhaps producers should consider alternative methods."
The research team is also interested in determining the factors that influence consumer acceptance of genetically modified foods. Knowing what consumers think of a product before it makes it to the grocery store shelf can help producers tailor products to consumers. If producers know in advance that consumers will accept modifications that provide a higher-value product, companies can save money by not investing resources into unnecessary efforts to control consumer backlash.
"This research should help agricultural producers and agribusiness firms that use genetically engineered products effectively promote and sell their products," Lusk said. "This survey information also can help estimate the number of people who may not wish to purchase genetically engineered foods. Determining the size of this niche market can identify an alternative market for producers."
John Lee, MAFES agricultural economist and head of MSU's Agricultural Economics Department, said results of this study have a lot of implications for U.S. trade policies and farmers.
"If it appears that European consumers are genuinely averse to genetically modified foods, U.S. producers can consider alternative products rather than spending effort and energy trying to overcome trade barriers," Lee said.
This research is just one project under way at the Agribusiness Institute. Lee said the institute has operated since 1990 and is a joint venture between the College of Business and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. It offers an academic program leading to a master's of agribusiness management.
"The Agribusiness Institute exists to be a place for the agribusiness community to get access to academic programs and students trained in agribusiness, and it serves as a focal point for research dealing with all aspects of the food chain linking producers to consumers," Lee said.
For more information, contact: Dr. Jayson Lusk, (662) 325-3796