Super food: Shoppers will pay 25% more

IOWA STATE (US) — Consumers want access to food that has been genetically modified to be healthier and are willing to pay significantly more for it, according to a new study.

“What we found was when genes for enhancing the amount of antioxidants and vitamin C in fresh produce were transferred by intragenic methods, consumers are willing to pay 25 percent more than for the plain product (with no enhancements). That is a sizable increase,” says Wallace Huffman, distinguished professor of economics at Iowa State University.

Intragenic modification refers to plants that are genetically modified with genes from other plants within their own species. Transgenic foods refer to plants that are modified with genes from other species.

Consumer traits are modifications that are seen as a benefit to the consumer—enhanced levels of vitamins for example. Farmer traits refer to traits that benefit farmers, such as pest and drought resistance.

The research is scheduled for publication in the Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

Improving plants by using intragenic methods is similar to cross breeding plants, a process commonly used by backyard gardeners trying to improve their irises, and was the main method used by hybrid seed corn businesses prior to genetic modification.

Some plants, however, are difficult to cross breed for a variety of reasons.

There are thousands of types of potatoes, for instance, each having some unique genetic traits. But since they reproduce by using an internal seed or eye of the potato, improving them through cross breeding with other potatoes is difficult.

By using the tools of genetic engineering, the intragenic process allows plant breeders to improve produce using within-species transfers.

Consumers’ acceptance of genetically modified plants is a turnaround from previous research, Huffman says.

Research in 2001 showed that consumers were willing to pay 15 percent less for foods made from or containing farmer traits introduced by transgenic methods, compared with produce that was not genetically modified at all.

If there remains any hesitation by consumers to eat genetically modified foods, it is difficult to say, Huffman says, but buying modified foods no longer seems to make consumers uneasy.

“There still could be a little bit of negative feelings toward a genetically modified product, but they (consumers) see real value being created in enhanced consumer traits, and they are willing to pay for those enhancements that are introduced by intragenic methods.”

Huffman’s experiment involved consumers bidding on both genetically modified and non-modified fresh potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli. The intragenically and transgenically modified products had increased levels of antioxidants and vitamin C.

“The basic idea is that when consumers saw that the intragenic produce had elevated healthful attributes, they were willing to pay more for them.”

But consumers were not willing to pay more if those enhancements were introduced through transgenic methods.

Participants were also given information—positive, negative, and neutral, and in combination—on genetic modification from scientific, human, financial, environmental, and general perspectives.

The positive information was given from the point of view of the food industry; negative information was presented from the perspective of environmental groups; and neutral information was from the scientific community. The industry and neutral perspectives contained definitions of intragenic and transgenic modifications.

Consumers gave more weight to the information from the food industry than from the environmental groups. The neutral information moderated the negative effect of environmental group information.

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