Many of us can probably recall a time when we waited in a long line just to purchase the latest mobile or electronic technology.  But, do we have the same reaction when it comes to technology used in food production? Granted, it may not seem as exciting as that new MP3 player or cell phone, but does food technology deserve a bad rap? What do Americans really think about food technology, and what types of messages resonate with them?

To gain insight into these very issues, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) recently conducted our 14 “Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology” Survey (formerly the “IFIC Survey of Consumer Attitudinal Trends toward Food Biotechnology”), which explores U.S. consumers’ perceptions of various aspects of plant and animal biotechnology, as well as sustainability and new and emerging technologies such as nanotechnology.

Key Takeaways

While we gained several interesting insights from this year’s Survey, one of the most important takeaways was that Americans’ support of the use of food biotechnology is strongest when they consider its potential benefits for impacting issues of importance to them, such as reducing the impact of food and food production on the environment, and improving sustainability.  

For example, we found that more than three-quarters (77 percent) of consumers would be likely to purchase foods produced through biotechnology for their ability to reduce pesticide use.  In addition, the survey findings indicate that those aspects of sustainable crop production benefiting the environment resonate most with consumers.  For instance, when asked to rank aspects of sustainable crop production (from a list of options) in order of importance, consumers’ top three are:

– “Growing more food on less land so valuable land like rain forests is NOT destroyed/used as growing space for increased food production.” (69 percent)

– “Reducing the amount of pesticides needed to produce food.” (65 percent)

– “Plants that use water more efficiently, thereby conserving fresh water to help cope with predicted droughts and water shortages.” (62 percent)

Not surprisingly, we also found that half of consumers (50 percent) report having heard or read at least “a little” about the concept of sustainability in food production, which is up significantly from 2008, when only 40 percent reported the same level of awareness.

“It is clear that consumers, when educated about the benefits of agriculture biotechnology, are supportive of its use to increase food production to feed a growing world population while conserving land and water.” says registered dietitian and food biotechnology communications expert Mary Lee Chin.  “Informed consumers see value in this sustainable crop production method, including its use of less pesticides and ability to safeguard natural resources.  Health professionals should be an integral part of the national conversation about sustainable food production by providing credible, science-based information about agricultural biotechnology advances and benefits, and driving continued public awareness and acceptance.”

As farmers and producers around the world face the challenge of doubling food production by the year 2050 to feed an estimated 9.1 billion people, food and health communicators will have the opportunity to inform the public about innovations in food technology that will help us meet this challenge.  It is clear from these survey findings that health professionals, communicators and educators must craft messages for consumers in a way that is not only science-based, but that speaks to benefits for them and their families.

What benefits would you want to see food technology provide in the next five years?

Editor’s Note:  ‘What’s In It For Me?’ Key in Communicating About Food Technology, by Kerry Robinson, RD was originally published on the International Food Safety Information Council Foundation Food Insight blog on June 2, 2010.