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‘Perceptions and emotions’: How consumers in the U.S. and Switzerland view New Genomic Techniques in agriculture

This article was written by Jorge Luis Alonso G., an Agricultural Insights Specialist

A collaborative study by scientists at ETH Zurich, Arizona State University and the University of Oregon was conducted to explore consumer perceptions in the U.S. and Switzerland regarding specific agricultural applications of New Genomic Techniques (NGTs). The study focused on understanding how these perceptions are shaped by emotions, values, and the regulatory environment.

The article below is a summarization of the study and the key findings, published in full in a scientific paper in the journal Food Research International here

The research team notes that the terms “New Genomic Techniques” (NGTs) or “Genome Editing” refer to various methods that allow finding, cleaving, and repairing specific sequences in the genome. These techniques could contribute to managing various challenges in plant breeding and agriculture.

Focusing on a blight-resistant potato, gluten-free wheat, and cold-resistant soybean, the study examines consumer attitudes in the United States and Switzerland toward three applications of new genomic technologies (NGTs) in agriculture. The research shows that half of the consumers surveyed in both countries have a positive view of these NGT applications, with the remainder split between negative, ambivalent and neutral feelings. However, Swiss participants expressed more negative sentiments than their American counterparts, likely influenced by the stricter regulatory environment in Switzerland.

The study also highlights the important role of affect in shaping consumer acceptance of NGTs. Positive feelings toward NGTs correlate with higher acceptance, confirming the importance of the affect heuristic in evaluating new food technologies. This finding highlights the ongoing controversy surrounding NGTs, with a notable minority opposed, particularly in regions with existing bans.

In terms of individual attitudes, trust in institutions and personal values significantly influence acceptance. Interestingly, the study did not find a strong correlation between organic food preferences and NGT acceptance, contradicting common assumptions. This suggests that the organic sector may need to re-evaluate consumer expectations in light of emerging technological innovations.

The research methodology included an online survey with participants from market research panels in both countries, aiming for a diverse sample in terms of age and gender. However, the study acknowledges limitations in its external validity due to differences in education levels and living environments between the sample and the general population.

In conclusion, the study highlights the complexity of consumer acceptance of NGTs in agriculture. While a significant portion of consumers are open to such innovations, there remains significant skepticism and resistance influenced by affect, values, and regulatory contexts. This calls for a balanced approach that integrates both biological and social sciences to address the challenges of technological progress and public perception in agriculture.

Key findings:

  • Consumer attitudes: The survey shows that approximately 50% of participants from both the United States and Switzerland have a positive attitude toward NGT applications. This indicates a significant level of openness to these agricultural innovations. The positive responses are likely driven by the perceived benefits these NGTs could offer in terms of crop resilience and health benefits.
  • Affect and acceptance: The study highlights the critical role of affect, or emotional response, in shaping consumer acceptance. Participants who associate positive feelings with NGTs tend to show higher levels of acceptance. This is consistent with affect heuristic theory, which suggests that emotional responses significantly influence people’s risk-benefit perceptions, especially in the context of new technologies.
  • Impact of the regulatory environment: The regulatory environment has a significant impact on consumer perceptions. Swiss participants, who come from a country with stricter regulations on genetic engineering, have more negative feelings about NGTs than their American counterparts. This difference underscores how regulatory contexts can serve as a cue for consumers in evaluating the safety and desirability of new technologies.
  • The role of individual differences: The study also highlights that trust in institutions and personal values are key factors in NGT acceptance. Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, preference for organic food was not strongly correlated with NGT acceptance. This finding challenges the assumption that organic food consumers are universally opposed to genetic engineering.

Source: Bearth, A., Otten, C. D., & Cohen, A. S. (2024). Consumers’ perceptions and acceptance of genome editing in agriculture: Insights from the United States of America and Switzerland. Food Research International, 178, 113982. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2024.113982
Image: Credit Rita und mit from Pixabay

Editor & Publisher: Lukie Pieterse


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