Personal Benefits Influence GM Attitudes

September 29, 2010

Consumer attitudes toward genetically modified (GM) products could be more favorable

Consumer attitudes toward genetically modified (GM) products could be more favorable when developed products deliver personally relevant benefits, according to a new study from Wageningen University in The Netherlands and published in Food Quality and Preference last month. The study found that acceptance of GM as a process increased with increasing perceived personal benefits – in this case a reduction of allergic reactions to apples.

In Northern Europe, where the study was conducted, apples are a major cause of food allergy among people that suffer from hay fever. When the Santana apple, a traditionally bred apple that has been identified as having a reduced allergenicity, was introduced as a hypoallergenic fruit in shops, researchers approached consumers with and without apple allergies. Consumers were asked to weigh the perceived personal health benefits and environmental benefits of genetically modified apples, as well as those grown with traditional breeding.

They found that consumer attitudes were significantly more positive toward those apples with greater benefits, like those bred to require fewer pesticides and those bred with greater hypoallergenicity. In fact, the higher the rate of allergy reduction, the higher the approval for the corresponding apples. For those that perceived allergy reduction after consumption of the Santana, they were more likely to feel positively about GM apples when the allergy reduction was closer to 95% than when the allergy reduction was closer to 66% or 5%.

Attitudes rated similarly toward the rate of pesticide reduction. Consumers were significantly more positive toward a 50% reduction in pesticides versus a 5% reduction, and those with a preference for organics were not impressed by a 5% reduction in pesticides. But all respondents, both those who preferred organics and those with a low preference for organics, rated a 50% reduction in pesticides equally.

“In our study pesticides were a control variable. We tried to include a case in which a technique has a benefit but not a personal benefit. Our results show that, in the 50% reduction case, everybody finds pesticide reduction important. Only when it is a small reduction (5%) did we detect differences between groups,” says study co-author Dr. M. Schenk. 

Within the GM methods, consumers reacted most favorably to apples bred with genes from another apple than they did to apples bread with genes from another plant. Overall, GM breeding was considered to be more acceptable if the participants received an individual benefit associated with the food. However, the majority of the consumers expressed a preference for the use of traditional breeding methods.

Sixty million Americans – that’s one in four – have allergies or asthma. Currently, the only effective way of preventing allergic reactions is to eliminate the allergen from the diet. Genetic modification of foods is another method that could help prevent allergic reactions. While traditional methods of cross breeding could help to create a more hypoallergenic product, in this case apples, bringing a product like this to market could take up to 20 years. GM could help speed up the process. Also, the development of hypoallergenic foods by applying methods such as gene silencing, a method that is already being developed in soy, peanuts and tomatoes, could improve quality of life for food allergic consumers.

“As far as hypoallergenicity is concerned, we think that the first step should be to screen existing varieties of several fruit crops for their allergen content. Such screening may provide tools for breeders to include hypoallergenicity as a target in their breeding program while developing future varieties. If peanut varieties can be produced minus the peanut allergens, this will reduce the level of antigens in general. Even though people who are allergic to peanuts may choose to avoid peanuts (as not all varieties are safe), their chance of accidental exposure will go down,” says study co-author Dr. M. Smulders.

Smulders says that retailers can help by selling hypoallergenic variants and by supplying information to consumers to enable them to choose the product that best suits their needs – not only GM or non-GM, but also normal or hypoallergenic. 

He adds, “Our results show that people do see GM as a technique that can provide benefits.”