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Changing public attitudes towards GM foods

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ONCE upon a time it used to be a reasonably simple task to just ask people if they would or wouldn’t eat Genetically Modified (GM) foods – and that would be a fair indicator of what you wanted to know. Unfortunately that doesn’t work so well any more.

The reasons, which have emerged from some in-depth polling from Biotechnology Australia’s latest tracking research study, are that people are becoming more sophisticated in their attitudes and make decisions based on quite complex value chains.

The study sought to reach beneath the statistics and determine what drove consumer’s attitudes.

So while roughly 50%of the population in Australia will eat GM foods, and roughly 50% won’t – these figures will move depending on:

· what benefits are there from eating the food,

· what is the final food type – a health food or snack food,

· how distant is the gene transfer involved,

· who is regulating it for safety,

· was it developed by a company or a public research organisation,

· and, to a lesser extent, the price of the product

Therefore, if you ask somebody these days if they would or wouldn’t eat GM foods, they’re more likely to say, ‘Well that depends. Are we talking about a cake or a tomato? What genes has it had transferred? And who developed it?’

However, while attitudes have become a little more complex, there is still a low level of understanding of GM food in Australia, with a quarter of survey respondents (25.8%) incorrectly believing that most of Australia’s fresh produce is GM.

Also, nearly half (46.3%) believed that most processed foods in Australian supermarkets are GM.

There was, however, great variation in the spread of attitudes, ranging from disgust to indifference and with many opinions in the middle that cannot simply be broken down into for or against.

Most participants did express concern about the potential health risks of consuming GM foods and some were sceptical whether the exact nature of the effect of these foods on human health would ever be known.

However the correlation between attitudes and behaviour showed a weaker link than has often been presumed, and the type of foods being considered became crucial as the key indicator.

Some respondents stated that they would stop purchasing a product if they found out that it was GM, but most said they would be reluctant to change their buying habits.

Some even expressed no intention to cease buying familiar items if they learnt that they were GM, given that they had not noticed any ill-effects to date.

During the focus group sections of the study participants were shown baked goods (e.g. lamingtons and cakes) which contained ingredients (e.g. soy emulsifiers, canola oil) produced from crops that are among the more commonly GM.

Most participants said they would buy and eat the baked goods, even if they contained GM ingredients, as they did not expect the product to be good for them in the first place.

Regarding labelling of GM foods, many people were generally confident that GM foods would have strict labelling requirements. However, none of the focus group respondents in the study could recall having ever seen a label on food packaging indicating the food was GM.

Most participants felt that the labelling should be obvious, and not simply in the fine print.

In this regard, they made reference to common flavours and preservatives, which were only identified by their codes, which made them difficult to identify.

The study also looked at awareness of, and trust in, regulators.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) rated very highly, with awareness levels of 61.3% (prompted) and trust levels of 69.9% amongst that group.

The study, which is the fourth in a series, was conducted by Eureka Strategic Research, for Biotechnology Australia, and entailed a telephone interview with 1067 people over the age of 18, supported by 13 focus groups.

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