Interest in food produced using novel technologies like genetic modification (GM) and nanotechnology continues to rise both domestically and internationally. North Carolina State University and the University of Minnesota have recently published research that suggests the majority of U.S. consumers base their decisions about genetically modified and nanotech food on whether the technologies offer improvements to the nutrition or safety of food. The paper, “Heterogeneous Consumer Preferences for Nanotechnology and Genetic-modification Technology in Food Products,” was published and can be found online in the Journal of Agricultural Economics.

This study investigated consumer preferences for rice, testing the “technology attributes” of rice enhanced with nanotechnology, GM or conventional breeding. The general benefits selected for investigation were enhanced nutrition, enhanced taste, enhanced food safety and less harmful effects on the environment. Participants were presented with a series of choice scenarios regarding a 32-oz bag of long grain white rice, which consisted of varied combinations of product attributes.

The study identified four estimated classes of participants. A fraction (17.64 percent) of the sample were named “Price Oriented/Technology Adopters,” in which participants are the most sensitive to change in price and base their decisions off of this factor regardless of the presence of either technology. The “Technology Averse” group consisted of 17.2 percent of the sample, and participants in this group will accept genetically modified or nanotech foods only if they disclose food safety benefits. The majority segment, which makes up 40.3 percent of the segment, were “Benefit Oriented,” indicating that participants in this group are willing to accept the technology used during production as long as certain benefits can be brought by it. The “New Technology Rejecters” make up 24.9 percent of the sample, and participants in this group reject nanotechnology or GM regardless of the associated benefits and prices whenever there is a conventional option.

Senior author of the paper and co-director of North Carolina State University’s Genetic Engineering and Society Center Jennifer Kuzma says, “This tells us that GM or nanotech food products have greater potential to be viable in the marketplace if companies focus on developing products that have safety and nutrition benefits—because a majority of consumers would be willing to buy those products.”

As a whole, while neither genetically modified nor nanotech foods are popular with consumers, nanotechnology is more acceptable than GM across all groups of participants and benefits. Safety benefits were most accepted, followed by nutrition, taste and the environment.

This research suggests several implications for the industry. First, labeling genetically modified and nanotech foods either through voluntary or mandatory initiatives may be a beneficial product development strategy in order to allow “technology-rejecters” to make their own decisions. Further, claims of enhanced quality and safety through genetically modified and nanotech foods should be verified in order to increase acceptance amongst consumers who are somewhat open to the technologies.

Alyssa Rudisill is a communications technical assistant in the Center on Genetic Engineering and Society at North Carolina State University.