A new study finds that after more than 20 years of growth in genetic engineering in agriculture, consumers have largely remained skeptical, even to the point of being “grossed out” by the idea.
The question of what constitutes “naturalness”—and consumers’ attitudes about it—lies at the heart of Washington University in St. Louis research from lead author Sydney Scott, assistant professor of marketing in the Olin Business School. The paper, titled “An Overview of Attitudes Toward Genetically Engineered Foods,” was published in August in the Annual Review of Nutrition.
“It’s an overview of where we are,” said Scott, who previously published research on the “moralization” of genetically modified foods and the role of consumer “disgust” in their consumption. “It’s looking at the state of what’s been done in the regulatory landscape and the research in understanding attitudes.”
“In some contexts, people view nature and naturalness as sacred and genetically engineered food as a violation of naturalness,” the authors wrote. The prevailing research also shows that consumers follow “the magical law of contagion”—the idea that the slightest contact between natural foods and something else contaminates it. Thus, a housefly’s wing in a bowl of soup renders the entire serving inedible.
What the research overview doesn’t address, however, is why some consumers seem to be fine with heavily processed foods—Hamburger Helper, frozen microwave dinners, or maple-flavored “pancake syrup” —but cannot abide genetically engineered foods such as weed-resistant soybeans, vitamin A-enriched rice, or fast-growing salmon.
“Consumers seem to be saying it’s not OK to poke into the DNA. That’s yucky,” Scott said. “People are grossed out by that.”
Source: Kurt Greenbaum, Washington University in St. Louis
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