The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Non technical abstract

diConsumer Acceptance of GM Foods: Implications for Trade



Sallie James and Michael Burton,

Agricultural and Resource Economics

University of Western Australia

35 Stirling Hwy

Crawley WA 6009


Contact author: Sallie James


Telephone: + 61 8 9380 2514



The application of the new agricultural biotechnologies to agri-food production has raised hopes for an exciting new era among those who recognise the potential improvements in production efficiency, environmental impact and even in the nutritional value of food that they offer. This enthusiasm for gene technologies has, however, been coupled with growing concern among those who object to their use about the risk to the food supply and to the environment. Consumer and environmental groups, in particular, have called for governments to enact legislation dealing specifically with food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as they argue that current food laws are insufficient to manage the risks peculiar to GM foods.

  While qualitative surveys regarding consumers’ attitudes about gene technologies and their application to food production are plentiful, quantitative studies are rare. The evidence so far seems to suggest that consumers in Western Europe are among the most concerned, with Americans the most accepting of the technology and Australians somewhere in between the two extremes. This research adds to those studies by using choice modelling methods to examine the extent to which Australian consumers are willing to pay to avoid GM food, if at all. One of the advantages of choice modelling is the ability to frame the issue at hand – in this case GM technology in food – in a wider context: the food system. In this sense, results are likely to be more reliable than a conventional willingness to pay (WTP)-type question. An added benefit of the choice modelling framework is that concern about GM food can be compared with concern about other aspects of the food system.

  The results of the choice modelling analysis suggest consumers are willing to pay a premium on their weekly food bill to avoid GM food, and that this premium is higher than the marginal WTP to avoid conventional health risks from food poisoning. In addition, gene technology using animal as well as plant genes was found to be more objectionable to respondents than that using plant genes alone, especially among women. Age seems to affect the preferences for a certain type of food, with older people generally more accepting of the use of gene technology in food. No other demographic or socio-economic characteristic was found to significantly affect preferences.

  A number of surveys and anecdotal studies suggest that culture may affect a person’s attitudes towards, and hence acceptance of, food containing GMOs. That is, the citizens of some countries are more concerned about gene technology than those of other countries. To the extent that government policies regarding the production, marketing and trade of these products are influenced by their constituents’ concerns, it is likely that trade frictions will arise. The long-running feud between the US and Canada and the EU about the use of hormones in beef production has shown that disputes involving food products can be particularly fractious and that existing trade rules have certain shortcomings in solving such disputes. Once again, the US and Canada are among those countries most eagerly embracing gene technologies in the agri-food sector and Europeans among those most concerned, thus setting the stage for another showdown.

  While this study of Australian consumers cannot provide much insight into how such a dispute might be handled, it is suggested here that studies of this sort over a range of countries will help trade analysts to describe and distinguish between GM and “GM-free” product markets. Incorporating this sort of information into international trade models will hopefully yield more accurate results from empirical welfare analysis. In addition, studies of this sort will provide evidence and added insight into consumers’ true, market based preferences, thus providing much needed clarity and transparency to the agricultural biotechnology debate.




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