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Consumers choose local, environmental apples

January 4, 2010  By Marg Land

apples02January 4, 2010 — When
asked to compare apples to apples, consumers said they would pay more for
locally grown apples than genetically modified (GMO) apples.

January 4, 2010 — When
asked to compare apples to apples, consumers said they would pay more for
locally grown apples than genetically modified (GMO) apples.

But in a second
questionnaire consumers preferred GMO apples – that is, when they were
described, not as GMO, but as having a reduced environmental impact.


The research conducted by
University of Illinois economist Michael Mazzocco and Augustana College
marketing professor Nadia Novotorova demonstrated that product labeling makes a
difference when it comes to consumer acceptance.

Mazzocco says it's about
selling the benefits.

“When GMO crops were first
introduced, people called them Frankenfood and emphasized the laboratory
processes used in breeding. The benefit seemed to be for farmers who saved
money by not having to spray their crops with chemicals.”

The reality is that apples
can be bred to be disease-resistant, so they don’t have to be sprayed with
fungicides and other chemicals 15 to 20 times per growing season. This
attribute gives them reduced environmental impact, and that’s a benefit
consumers can wrap their teeth around, as well as their wallets.

“One thing we learned was
that if you’re going to get any benefit from technology, you’re going to have
to communicate the benefits of it,” Mazzocco said. “People aren’t willing to
pay you for the technology just so they can have another attribute. There’s an
equal trade-off. But, when you don’t call it GMO and instead you communicate
the benefit to the environment, it’s more than a one-to-one trade-off and
consumers are willing to pay more for it.”

No apples were tasted,
handled or even seen. “In both questionnaires, people rated apples based on a
description. We were trying to identify where the trade-offs are between the
attributes,” Mazzocco said. “People don’t want an apple. What they want is the
attributes of the apple – nutrition, flavour, colour, etc.

“But, an apple also comes
with other attributes. Like the guilt from using all of that diesel fuel from
transporting it from the state of Washington or the fear of feeding your
children what might be Frankenfood,” Mazzocco said.

Both surveys began by
giving the participants the identical short lesson in apple growing, which
included information about apple diseases and pests and how disease-resistant
apples are developed. One apple is made through laboratory techniques where a
naturally occurring scab-resistant gene from an apple was inserted into another
variety of apple that's your favorite – the one you would normally buy. This
apple that has the gene inserted in a laboratory can reduce apple spraying 15
to 20 times per season.

“A conventional apple, a
non-cloned apple, grown in a typical apple growing region in Washington,
Michigan, or New York, probably is not susceptible to apple scab and has fewer
sprays. So in order to have a locally grown apple you’re going to have to do
something about apple scab otherwise you may not have a crop,” Mazzocco said.

Given that information,
200 people rated 12 combinations of attributes of apples. For example, one
might be $1.39 a pound, produced far away, and conventionally grown. Another
apple might be $1.59, locally grown, and GMO. For the second study, a separate
set of 200 people’s questionnaire described the attribute as “reduced
environmental impact” rather than GMO. Everything else was the same.

“Looking at the rankings
of all of the combinations of attributes, and the comparison of the weightings
of the importance of the various factors – what it boils down to is that people
will pay more for reduced environmental impact. When you call it a GMO, there
are some who will steer away from it, but on average they're indifferent.
They’ll trade local for GMO,” Mazzocco said.

“We concluded that the
benefits of genetic modification are something that consumers can get their
arms around. People understand the benefit that with these apples you have
fewer fungicide sprays around your neighborhood and your waterways in order to
enable locally grown apples.”

The study also found that
people aged 65 and older have a stronger preference for conventional apples.
“When we called it a GMO apple, the people aged 65 and older reacted to that.
When you call it reduced environmental impact, they didn’t react to it as much and
younger people trend towards it.

“The message is that we
need to be careful what we label things and to communicate the benefits,”
Mazzocco said.

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