The GMO Debate: When Perception Deters Purchase, a Little Bit of Transparency Goes a Long Way
What’s in my food? Where was it made? Who made it? How pure and natural are the ingredients — and where are they from? How safe is it?
Today’s consumers are becoming more curious and cautious about the foods and beverages they purchase for themselves and their families. This growing concern for what goes into their bodies prior to purchase is fueling the consumer’s desire to learn more about food manufacturers’ production practices.
Nowhere is this anxiety over where their food was grown or how it is handled played out more than in the debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
As we’ve written before, GMO is the elephant in the room that has become a potent symbol of the problems plaguing America’s food system. Our own research finds that for many consumers, GMO is a buzzword and a nebulous concept that raises a host of concerns, including:
- Alarm about food that is unnatural and manipulated in a laboratory for questionable purposes.
- Anxiety that the consequences for human health and the environment are, at best, unknown, if not demonstrably negative.
- Suspicion that there is a lot of money to be made from GMOs.
- Cynicism that companies are putting profit over consumers’ health.
- Indignation over producers of GMOs treating small farmers poorly and using coercive and unfair business tactics.
Speaking at the January 2016 Potato Expo in Las Vegas, Shelley Balanko, SVP at The Hartman Group, said that while about 40 percent of the U.S. population aims to reduce or avoid intake of genetically modified food, they are not any one demographic group. “What makes them different from the 60 percent of the population is their concern for transparency and their interest in purity,” Balanko said.
GMO-averse consumers, however, bear some similarity to the most involved (or in Hartman Group parlance, “core”) organic consumer. According to Balanko, the core organic consumer and the GMO-averse consumer behave very similarly, and what is driving the avoidance is fear of the unknown.
“Consumers who shun genetically modified food don’t know a lot about either the benefits or consequences of consuming GMO products. What's more, consumers who shun GMOs don’t often rely on the non-GMO certification seal to inform the purchases they are making,” she said. “There is not a great degree of certainty about whether the purchases they are making are in accordance with their values; they are just not sure.”
There is not yet a comprehensive and consistent consumer understanding of GMOs:
- Slightly more than half of consumers (52 percent) say they understand what GMOs are.
- Less than a third of consumers (30 percent) say they know which crops are most likely to use GMOs.
- Even fewer consumers (28 percent) say they know which products have GMO ingredients.
- Only 9 percent of consumers understand that certified organic foods are GMO-free.
Interest around the topic of GMOs continues to grow as does concern about the lack of transparent communication. Our Transparency 2015 report finds that 64 percent of consumers say that “knowing what ingredients are in a food or beverage” is of top importance to them, and among these consumers 41 percent say they want to know about GMOs.
Important points to consider with regard to GMOs include:
- The GMO-averse population looks much like America demographically, and they are united in a desire for enhanced transparency around their food.
- The most active “core” organic consumers are the most knowledgeable and engaged around GMOs. Yet even they have a much poorer understanding of GMO production than they do of organic production.
- Many GMO-averse consumers do not utilize the most dominant seal, and many do not know or trust organic as a proxy for non-GMO either.
- The GMO-averse consumer is passionate but ill-equipped to activate their intent right now.
Going forward, it is important to remember that “non-GMO” as a designation is the latest in a line of elite purity attributes to start mainstreaming in modern food culture and is a purchase driver in consumers’ evolving quest for purity.
Companies that are silent on the GMO issue face the greatest risk of losing consumer trust and relevance because:
- Questions about a lack of transparent communications are top of mind, and consumers are troubled by a lack of transparency.
- Manufacturers and producers are falling behind in the opportunity to shape the conversation around this issue, while retailers and the media are leading the way.
- Not labeling GMOs will likely be a liability in the near future.
- Transparency around sourcing comprises today’s table stakes.
“Short term, it is important to engage the consumer in conversation and be transparent; even if you are not talking about genetically modified food, be transparent about production so they feel invited into the conversation and they can trust you,” Balanko advised.
Additional resources about the GMO issue: