What is the response of New Zealand consumers to genetically modified (GM) foods? Will they pay extra for genetically enhanced foods? Will they buy GM foods if they are cheaper than non-GM foods? In 2004, a team from Lincoln University's Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit set out to explore this further.
What is genetic modification (GM)?
Genetic modification refers to the process of changing the genetic material of an organism using laboratory techniques. Genetic modification includes inserting new DNA into an organism, inactivating some of the existing DNA or changing the existing DNA in some way.
New DNA can be inserted into an organism using laboratory tools such as gene guns. This is a complex process involving careful research.
The first generation of commercial GM was done in plants and was either targeted at increasing herbicide tolerance (so that weed spraying could be more efficient leading to cheaper food production) or increasing insect resistance (so that less chemical sprays were used on the crop, reducing the farmers costs, creating cheaper food with less spray residue).
The second generation of GM food is creating desirable characteristics, such as better taste, increased nutritional value or longer shelf life.
What are some GM foods?
The four most commonly grown GM crops in the world are maize, corn, soy and canola. Go to Nature magazine's website to find out more on where GM crops are being grown around the world.
In New Zealand, any research carried out using genetic modification of viable organisms in a research institution requires approval from the Environmental Protection Authority. This depends upon the GMO's being strictly contained in field tests or glasshouses and laboratories.
In order to investigate whether New Zealand consumers would buy genetically modified foods, 2,000 randomly selected New Zealand households were sent a questionnaire about their willingness to buy GM foods and how much they would pay for them. 36% of the surveys were returned. Economic modelling using mathematical equations then turned these results into some useful predictions about the economic benefits of growing GM crops.
The foods in the survey
The examples of GM foods used in the survey were fictitious (made-up). The researchers created these examples to reflect near-future GM practice. Three of the foods offer health benefits, one leads to reduced use of pesticides, one makes the food cheaper to produce and one has no obvious benefit. They were:
- Butter produced from cows genetically modified to produce 50% less cholesterol in their milk.
- Milk from cows that are grown on pastures containing genetically modified clover.
- Meat from sheep genetically modified for 'double-muscling', producing more meat and less fat per animal.
- Apples genetically modified to produce twice as many antioxidants, which may help prevent cancer.
- Bread made from genetically modified wheat that is 25% cheaper to grow.
- Sweetcorn that had been genetically modified to resist insects so that it requires a 50% reduction in the usual application of pesticides.
Will New Zealanders buy GM food?
The results to the survey showed that 31.4% of respondents would not buy any of the GM foods referred to in the questionnaire. Some people would buy some but not all of the GM foods referred to. For most products, about half of respondents would pay as much or more for the enhanced GM food as for the basic non-GM food. The GM food that people most commonly indicated that they would buy was the antioxidant apples, followed by the low-cholesterol butter (i.e. foods with obvious health benefits).
The economics of growing GM crops
Economic modelling suggests that, if current trends continue, New Zealand shoppers could only support an agricultural industry where less that one-quarter of the food produced is GM.
Economic modelling requires fancy maths where the data is graphed as the proportion of people willing to buy GM foods and the percentage of the non-GM price they would be willing to pay. Next, an equation thatdescribes the shape of the graph is identified. Other factors affecting the results are considered, and each factor is then adjusted to see the overall effect that it has.
Advantages of growing GM food crops possibly include the potential to:
- reduce production costs
- increase yield
- reduce environmental damage done by crop spraying
- produce foods with extra benefits.
The first and last of these have obvious economic impacts. Cheap food will presumably sell well, increasing profits, and food with extra benefits should be able to bring in a higher market price and also increase profits. However, this is only if the GM food production is supported by consumer demand. The potential to increase yield may have positive or negative economic impacts.
Economists used the data collected in this study to make recommendations about how much GM food production New Zealand's economy could support if GM technology was used on farms here. They calculated the outcomes for three possible scenarios:
- If farms produce the same amount of produce and prices increase, farmers could expect a 6% increase in profits.
- If farms produce more produce and prices stay the same, farmers could expect a 2% decrease in profits (because of a possible glut in the market).
- If farms produce more produce and prices increase, farmers could expect a 4% increase in profits.
If public support for GM food stays the same, the best situation for farmers would be if 15% of their crops were GM, and they could charge 11% more for this product.
To find out more about the economic impacts of GM crops from a farmer's point of view, see the article Economic impacts of GM crops.
The research team
William Kaye-Blake, Caroline Saunders and John Fairweather from Lincoln University's Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit (AERU) carried out this research.
Status of GM Food in New Zealand
As at 2020, the Ministry for the Environment states that in New Zealand:
- no fresh produce (fruit, vegetables and meat) is genetically modified
- no genetically modified crops (e.g. potatoes, sweet corn) are grown commercially
- some processed foods may contain imported ingredients that have been genetically modified.
See also the Food Standards New Zealand statement about the management of genetically modified food and crops:
- Any food that is genetically modified (GM) or contains GM material must be approved by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.
- GM foods sold in New Zealand must be clearly labelled ‘genetically modified’ if they contain DNA or protein from a GM source or they have altered characteristics compared to their non-GM equivalent (such as a changed fatty acid profile). The Ministry for Primary Industries enforces the food standards code, which includes food labelling standards.
Socio-scientific issues provide excellent opportunities for class discussions and learning. This article looks at genetically modified tomatoes and contains links to a variety of different viewpoints for students to consider and discuss.
The Ethics and genetically modified foods class case study provides an example of introducing ethical thinking into the classroom to explore a controversial issue in science.
Read the September 2004 report from the AERU Modelling the Trade Impacts of Willingness to Pay for Genetically Modified Food.
General information about GM foods in New Zealand can be found on the Food Standards website.