An Open Mind Wants More: Opinion Strength and the Desire for Genetically Modified Food Labeling Policy

Article excerpt

Two opposing viewpoints exist in the literature; some suggest consumers are unconcerned and do not desire any genetically modified labeling, while others indicate the opposite. The mixed results may be because consumers make finer distinctions than surveys have called for, and have evaluation schemes sensitive to information about the benefits and risks associated with genetically modified foods. We find consumers are quite nuanced in their preferences for genetically modified labeling policy. Unexpectedly, consumers with less-defined views desire mandatory labeling of the most stringent type, while consumers with stronger viewpoints (either pro- or con-genetically modified) are more relaxed in their labeling requirements.

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There are two opposing viewpoints regarding consumers' acceptance of genetically modified (GM) foods and their desire for the labeling of these foods. Industry leaders believe consumers accept these foods because the public shows a willingness to consume them. For example, most milk in the United States is produced with the use of bST hormone, even though bST-free milk is available, clearly labeled, and advertised. In fact, except for recent limited gains, initial sales for bST-free milk were so weak it almost disappeared from the market (Webb 2006). In addition, some national surveys indicate that consumer concerns toward GM foods are low and few individuals desire any GM labeling (IFIC 2007). In contrast, as indicated by Noussair, Robin, and Ruffieux (2004), most of the academic literature indicates people are highly concerned about the GM technology (e.g., Huffman et al. 2002; Loureiro and Bugbee 2005), are willing to pay to avoid GM foods (e.g., McCluskey et al. 2003), and would like to see GM foods labeled (e.g., Teisl et al. 2003a).

One problem is that many GM labeling studies (and potentially some current labeling policies) approach the issue as one where the consumer's sole desire for information about GM foods is whether they are, in fact, genetically modified (Teisl and Caswell 2002). This approach may work well for consumers who have lexicographic preferences where the process of GM production must first be resolved before the consumer considers any other quality attributes (Kaye-Blake, Bicknell, and Saunders 2005). However, because the use of biotechnology in food production can have multidimensional effects on product quality (Caswell 2000), consumers who want to know about some or all of the changes in product attributes may find that such a labeling program provides information that is inadequate, irrelevant, or that impedes their decision making (Roe et al. 2001).

Another problem is that many studies often refer to the GM technology in imprecise terms, whereas consumers appear to be capable of making finer distinctions; hence, it is hard to interpret the attitude levels being reported (Fischhoff and Fischhoff 2001). For example, early willingness-to-pay studies commonly assumed that the genetic modification only provided benefits to consumers by lowering prices; only recently have studies (e.g., O'Connor et al. 2005; Onyango and Govindasamy 2005; Hossain and Onyango 2004) looked at situations where individuals may derive nonprice benefits (e.g., improved nutritional characteristics). In turn, it is not surprising that survey respondents would respond negatively to GM content because new technologies are often viewed as having long-term risks. Indeed, when studies include a GM-related benefit, consumers are often willing to buy these foods (e.g., Boccaletti and Moro 2000; Verdurme, Gellynck, and Viaene 2001; Teisl et al. 2003b).

Because consumer acceptance of GM foods is linked to the perceived risks and benefits of these foods (Boccaletti and Moro 2000; Chen and Li 2007; Curtis and Moeltner 2006; Lusk and Coble 2005; Moon and Balasubramanian 2004; Rosati and Saba 2000; Subrahmanyan and Cheng 2000) and because consumers are heterogeneous in how they weigh these risks and benefits (Kaye-Blake, Bicknell, and Saunders 2005), recent authors have focused on segmenting consumers by how they evaluate GM foods (e. …