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Consumers are restless ... some businesses and governments respond

It looks to us like a consumer revolt against the conventional food system is brewing. Concerns about pesticides, biotechnology and food safety continue to mount. Fortunately, some businesses and governments have recognized the signs and started to respond.


A host of surveys show that consumers are concerned about pesticides1. Many consumers are also willing to pay more for produce with guaranteed lower pesticide residues, and are willing to accept products with slight cosmetic damage if assured that lower levels of pesticides have been used2.

Consumer concern does not necessarily translate into modified purchasing patterns. One of the most significant reasons is the absence of food information systems that alert consumers to the type of production system used. Only certified organic and, in some cases, transition to organic, residue-free, and low-spray products, have any recognition in the market place. Studies examining consumer supermarket behaviour have found that when provided with more information on production histories, consumers will more frequently choose food from reduced-pesticide production systems3. Knowing this, the produce industry and retailers may be more willing to accept and encourage reduced pesticide use4.

The expansion of the organic food sector is also an indication of consumers' concerns about pesticides. The desire to reduce exposure to pesticides is a significant motivating force for consumers5. Various nations are experiencing significant rates of growth of organic foods. The USA experienced a 22% increase from 94-95 (to $2.8 billion), including a 32% increase in produce sales. This was the sixth year in a row the industry experienced growth rates over 20%.

Denmark anticipates that organic will occupy 15-20% of market share by the year 2000, with 7% of agricultural land in organic production. The Bavarian State government in Germany plans to have 25% of their agriculture converted to organic production by the year 2000. Within the European Community as a whole, organic foods occupy about 0.5% of the food market, and they are projected to reach 2.5% by the year 2000. The number of hectares under organic cultivation quadrupled between 1987 and 1993.

Iceland plans to have all 5000 of its farmers converting to organic production by the year 2000. Cuba has set similar targets.

Biotech products

The hostile reaction in Europe to genetically-modified soybeans and corn is further indication that consumers are worried about what's happening to their food.

Surveys reveal that as many as 85 percent of Europeans would shun genetically altered food if given the choice6. Led by Greenpeace, and other environmental and consumer organizations, the possibility of a consumer boycott is real.

Although the European Union has approved both genetically-modified soybeans and corn for sale, retailers, manufacturers and many national governments are not toeing the line. German subsidiaries of Unilever and Nestle said last year they will not buy the soybeans, and canceled their U.S. orders — an amount equalling 7 % of total U.S. soybean exports to Europe in 1995. Tesco, Britain's leading food retailer, intends to label genetically modified foods, and suppliers will have to segregate modified and unmodified soya and corn.

The Swiss government has delayed permission to import the altered soybeans because of consumer reaction. Both the Swiss and German governments also want mandatory labelling of genetically-altered foods. The French government has announced it will not allow the growing of genetically-engineered corn. In defiance of the European Commission, Luxembourg and Austria have imposed national import bans on the corn.

The US is particularly nervous about poor consumer reaction, because 40% of the US soybean crop is exported to Europe. It seems that the US government and Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup-ready soybeans, were caught off guard by consumer reaction. Some critics find this odd, given the on-going US rhetoric about the need for business to be consumer-responsive.

1 See, for example, Sachs, C. et. al. 1987. Consumer pesticide concerns: a 1965-1984 comparison. J. Consumer Affairs. 21:96-107; Public Voice for Food and Health Policy (PVFHP). 1993. What Americans Think About Agrochemicals: a nationwide survey on health, environment and public policy. PVFHP, Washington. April 93.

2 Conklin, N.C. & Mischen, P.A. (undated). Quality Standards and Pesticide Use: a review of research. Prepared for the Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA. Arizona State University, Tempe.

3 Collins, J.K. et al. 1992. Consumer attitudes on pesticide treatment histories of fresh produce. J. Sustainable Agriculture 3:81-98.

4 Rosenblum, G. 1991. On the Way to Market: roadblocks to reducing pesticide use on produce. Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, Washington.

5 Baseline Market Research. 1988. Organic Agriculture Study. A report for the Agricultural Development Branch, Agriculture Canada. Baseline Market Research, Fredericton, NB; Jolly, D.A. et al., 1989. Organic foods: consumer attitudes and use. Food Technology Nov.:60-66; Anon. 1995. Tracking nutrition trends. Imprint Sept. 95.

6 Arax, M. & Brokaw, J. 1997. No way around Roundup: Monsanto's bioengineered seeds are designed to require more of the company's herbicide. Texas InfiNet Jan. 30/97.

Copyright 1997 Ecological Agriculture Projects

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