Perceptions of GMO foods: Surveying the Canadian consumer

Posted on April 23, 2014

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The debate around genetic modification has been on-going since the first crops were introduced into the food system more than 20 years ago. Since then, both Health Canada and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration have approved a number of genetically modified crops for use as food (e.g. specific novel soybean, corn, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes, etc.). Currently, four main genetically engineered crops are grown commercially in Canada: canola, corn, soy and sugar beets. A survey conducted recently by Ipsos-Reid on behalf of BioAccess Commercialization Centre and its partners (including Ag-West Bio) examined Canadian consumer perceptions regarding healthy food, ingredients and natural health products. One of the questions explored various factors that influence consumers in their food purchase behavior. The Canadian Baseline Survey found that 43% of Canadians are more likely to buy a product that is “GMO-free”. When the survey results were presented at in-person workshops to groups of companies in various jurisdictions, the GMO-free statistics were specifically queried. Workshop participants were surprised by the extent to which Canadian food purchases are influenced by the GMO designation and noted that more information is needed in this area. Their questions and subsequent discussion results from their buyers and consumers’ questions regarding company products (and the ingredients contained in those products), along with the growing, divisive debate in the media, is leaving consumers either confused or taking “sides” in the debate – without a good understanding of genetic modification.

Companies lacked the specific information they need to reduce risks in their product development strategies, as well as to develop appropriate communication strategies. Previous surveys focused on consumer attitudes towards GMO food products, their willingness to purchase these food products as well as under what circumstances, and to a lesser extent, what sources they trusted for information on the topic. However, BioAccess found a gap in the research: There was the lack of information regarding consumer understanding of the concept of GMO food products, and where (and how) they receive information on the subject. This lack of information put producers, processors, manufacturers and retailers at a distinct disadvantage; all members of the value chain require clarity regarding consumer understanding of genetic modification. Throughout this project BioAccess has supported the agri-food industry in Western Canada and engaged partners with varying opinions on both sides of the GMO issue. The company conducted consumer focus groups to articulate the problem and gained insight in order to develop a meaningful survey, then managed the development, completion, and analysis of a survey aimed at providing current information on perceptions of the Canadian consumer of GMO foods and ingredients. The results of the second survey entitled Perceptions of GMO Foods among Canadians have been of interest to all members in the various chains on both sides of the debate. Access to unbiased, strategic information is required to properly assess opportunities and target new product development – and to avoid costly, long-term mistakes. This project has allowed all stakeholders to better understand the demand of consumers in various target markets and exploit market opportunities, enabling Canadian companies and producers to better focus their limited resources. As the BioAccess Centre is now closed we are continuing to disseminating the results to Canadian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and producers/growers through our partner organizations, such as Ag-West Bio.

Canadian Baseline Survey

Perceptions of GMO Foods among Canadians