Study: Nod to biotech wheat from consumers

by Josh Sosland
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WASHINGTON — Grain-based foods baked with bioengineered flour would be embraced by consumers if they understand the technology’s sustainability benefits, according to a new study from the International Food Information Council.

The 14th IFIC Food Technology Consumer Survey found support from consumers for biotechnology when “they consider its potential benefits for reducing the impact of food and food production on the environment and for improving sustainability.”

This year’s survey focused on consumer attitudes toward various aspects of plant and animal biotechnology as well as sustainability and new and emerging technologies such as nanotechnology.

The most positive responses from consumers related to biotechnology and sustainability. More than three quarters (77%) of consumers said they would be likely to purchase food produced through biotechnology for “their ability to reduce pesticide use (consistent with 2008).”

Positive responses moved higher, to 80%, when it came to the likelihood of consumers purchasing bread, crackers, cookies, cereal or pasta products made with ingredients milled from bioengineered wheat “if they were produced using sustainable practices to feed more people using fewer resources such as land and pesticides (new question in 2010),” IFIC said. Only 5% said not at all likely, in response to the question.

The group continued, “While products containing wheat grown using biotechnology are still up to a decade away from being commercially available, these data indicate a receptive audience to such products if they are produced through sustainable practices.”

Marianne Smith Edge, who is interim vice-president of nutrition and food safety for IFIC, said the results affirm the importance to consumers of food production as it relates to sustainability and the environment.

“Over the last several years, we’ve seen the overall awareness of sustainability and environmental issues continue to grow.”

IFIC said awareness of sustainability was growing with 50% having heard or read “at least a little” about the concept with regard to food production. The figure was up from 41% in 2008 and 30% in 2007.

Drilling deeper into various aspects of sustainability, protecting land, reducing pesticide use and conserving water ranked highest in importance among respondents. Ranked in order of importance, the top three aspects of sustainability were:

o “Growing more food on less land so valuable land like rain forests is not destroyed/used as growing space for increased food production.” (69%)
o “Reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food.” (65 %)
o “Plants that use water more efficiently, thereby conserving fresh water to help cope with predicted droughts and water shortages.” (62%)

Less popular choices were less waste, recyclable packaging, smaller carbon footprint and fewer food miles.

Overall, the majority of consumers are somewhat or very likely to purchase a variety of produce, such as tomatoes or potatoes, modified by biotechnology to provide more healthful fats such as omega-3 (76%), to avoid trans fatty acids (74%) or to make the product taste better/fresher (67%).

Holding a favorable or somewhat favorable impression of plant biotechnology were 32% of respondents, a figure that slips to 29% for animal biotechnology. The somewhat or very unfavorable impression figures were 29% and 27%, respectively.

“Interestingly, the majority of consumers who are either unfavorable or neutral in their views toward animal biotechnology cited ‘I don’t have enough information’ about animal biotechnology (55%) and/or ‘I don’t understand the benefits of using biotechnology with animals’ (39%) as their reason(s) for being unfavorable or neutral,” IFIC said.

Other topics addressed in the confidence in the food supply, labeling, and perceptions of biotechnology. Describing themselves as somewhat or very confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply were 69% of respondents,

Asked whether they could think of additional information they would like to see on food labels, 82% of consumers answered in the negative.

“More than 60% of consumers (63%) agree with the Food and Drug Administration’s food labeling policy, which requires food products to be labeled when use of biotechnology substantially changes the food’s nutritional content (such as vitamins or fat) or its composition, or when a potential food safety issue is identified,” IFIC said. “Only 12% oppose, and 24% neither support nor oppose the policy.”

Respondents were considerably less familiar with nanotechnology than biotechnology, with only 35% of Americans having read or heard “at least a little” about the subject, a science that involves the design and application of structures, devices and systems on an extremely small scale, called the nanoscale (i.e., billionths of a meter, or about 1-million the size of a pinhead).

“However, when consumers were given examples of potential benefits of food application of nanotechnology such as food packaging and processing to improve food safety and quality and better nutrient and ingredient profiles to improve health, half of consumers (49%) were favorable toward the technology,” IFIC said.

To conduct the survey, IFIC commissioned Cogent Research of Cambridge, Mass. Cogent contacted individuals April 5-26. The study had a sample size of 750, and the data were weighted on marital status and education to be nationally representative.

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