HOUSTON -- American consumers are expressing a significant level of discomfort over the use of pesticides on crops; in fact, they prefer genetically modified fruits and vegetables if given a choice, according to a survey released during the American Farm Bureau Federation's 81st annual convention here.
According to the poll, conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide in July and August 1999, 73% of the 1,002 adult consumers surveyed said that they would accept biotechnology as a trade-off for not using chemicals in food production. The study, which also asked 704 of the nation's farmers to assess their own performance and perception of consumer attitudes, was commissioned by Philip Morris Cos., New York, whose food holdings include Kraft, Miller, Oscar Mayer and Post.
The study revealed that, besides biotechnology, shoppers preferred other options over reliance on pesticides, including: paying higher prices (57%); smaller selection (68%); and seasonal availability (72%).
"Some of these results really surprised us," said Dean Kleckner, president of the AFBF. "It's clear that the agricultural industry has not done a good job educating consumers about the benefits of pesticide use."
Kleckner added that the industry should strive to avoid making "the same mistake with biotechnology and other new farming practices."
The poll indicated that both consumers and farmers appear to be open minded in regards to biotechnology. In all, 37% said that they had heard more about the benefits than drawbacks of the practice. And, the results showed increasing acceptance if it was tied to direct benefits:
57% if it improves the taste of food;
65% if it boosts the nutritional value;
69% if increases food production; and,
73% if it reduces pesticide use.
"These results are not unusual," said Bob Pares, vice president of Roper Starch Worldwide, based in New York. "Consumers are willing to use whatever means are available to achieve desired outcomes. It's the same trend we're seeing with alternative medicine."
The poll revealed that the farm industry has "overestimated" the level to which consumers have heard detrimental information about several practices, such as biotechnology, the use of hormones in milk production, irradiation and antibiotics used the treat animal illness.
In fact, researchers found that the consumers didn't know much about many farming practices to begin with. For example, the largest group of those polled said they haven't heard either "benefits or drawbacks" of the following farm production practices to have formed a solid opinion of them:
41% on biotechnology;
41% on irradiation;
31% on the use of antibiotics to treat animal disease; and,
28% on using hormones to increase milk production in dairy cows, or organic farming methods.
According to the researchers, these numbers reveal that the industry hasn't exercised all of its resources to serve as a resource in the various debates, particularly about pesticides and genetically modified food production. Both farmer respondents (71%) and consumers (67%) agreed that the agriculture industry is doing only a "fair" or "poor" job of explaining the pros and cons of various farming techniques to the general public.
"One of the consumer trends we've been watching over the last decade is this need to be informed," said Pares. "Consumers want to make informed choices, and if the agriculture industry is not putting out the information, someone else will, and they information they share may not always be accurate or in the best interest of agriculture."
The survey asked more than 140 questions divided into the following categories: consumer preferences for the foods they eat; consumer satisfaction with various food characteristics; farmers' views of consumer preferences and satisfaction with the food supply; farmers' and consumers' views about the healthfulness and safety of the food supply, as well as farm and food policy.
Consumers Open-Minded About Biotechnology
While 37% of consumers polled have heard more good than bad in regards to biotechnology, their support for the practice increases if it is associated with "specific" benefits: