As agricultural production has evolved, terms and phrases like ‘organic’ and ‘genetically modified organism’ have entered our vocabulary. What are these modified organisms we see labeled in supermarkets?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been used since the production of insulin. The purpose of genetically modifying something is to bring out desirable traits while eradicating the undesirable traits. However, some people have become increasingly suspicious of these modified foods we now unknowingly purchase and consume.
Two Types of GMOs: First Gen vs Second Gen
First generation GM products are produced to benefit farmers as they are resistant to pests and disease. First generation products are essentially produced to increase yield and to save money. Second generation GM products benefit the consumer due to their improved nutrition, flavor, and taste. The market for second-generation GM foods has grown with the increased interest in improved nutrition. However, the market for organic foods, foods which have not been modified, has grown as well.
Willingness to Pay for Foods with Different Levels of GM Content
A recent study was published in the Journal of Food Distribution Research on the topic of consumer’s willingness to pay (WTP). The objective of the study was to determine consumer WTP for foods produced with different traits: first-generation GM, second-generation GM, and organic. The second objective was to examine WTP for non-GM foods with a tolerance level for GM ingredients that may have entered the production process. To gather results, the researchers conducted a survey from two universities. They asked questions regarding knowledge of GM and organic foods, opinions regarding labeling (which is another issue in itself), and confidence in the ability of agencies to ensure the safety of the food supply (Bernard et al. 2009).
The researchers found that consumers were willing to pay the most for organic foods like milk and cereal. It is also important to note that the consumers were more concerned with the GM content of fresh foods and therefore willing to pay more. The second highest value for WTP fell under the second-generation GM category most likely because of improved nutrition. The consumers were not as concerned with first-generation GM foods because paying more would not benefit them directly, as the producers would be benefitting the most.
Furthermore, the researchers found that 52 percent of the students were unsure if they had eaten GM products. This statistic may be a result of the inadequate labeling of genetically modified foods. About 44 percent were sure they had eaten GM products while only 5 percent believed they had never eaten GM products.
Additionally, the researchers found that students were most concerned about pesticides and fertilizers while they were least concerned about non-GM foods, most likely due to the low awareness of GM-content in the food supply (Bernard et al. 2009).
Threshold Levels for GM Content
The researchers suggested that a one percent threshold would be a reasonable limit for GM content in non-GM foods. Consequently, foods beyond the one percent threshold would have to be labeled as GM.
This differs greatly from the standards that China has set. In China, there is a zero-tolerance threshold. In order to be non-GM, there cannot be any modified ingredients in the product. A zero-tolerance policy would be unrealistic in the United States as about 80% of maize, cotton, and soy, are of GM varieties (Maghari and Ardekani 2011).
The Benefits and Dangers of GMOs
Resistant to pests and plant disease
Allows for nutritional enhancement
Allows farmers to increase production yield
Tolerant to droughts
Can introduce risks to food security
Can be harmful to the environment
Can allow for the emergence of superweeds and superpests
Can contribute to the loss of biodiversity
Increase antibiotic resistance
Increase food allergies
(Maghari and Ardekani 2011).
The Debate on Genetic Modification
The debate over the production of GM foods falls between agri-biotech investors and independent scientists, environmentalists, farmers, and consumers. The investors believe that the new technology can solve issues of food and resource scarcity. Those against GM foods warn that GM products introduce new risks to food security, the environment, and human health. Maghari and Ardekani suggest that biotech companies proceed with caution when producing new GM foods as human health and the environment may be at risk.
Bernard JC, Gifford K, Santora K, & Bernard DJ. 2009. Willingness to pay for foods with varying production traits and levels of GM content. Journal of Food Distribution Research 40(2): 1-10.
Maghari BM & Ardekani AM. 2011. Genetically modified foods and social concerns. Avicenna Journal of Medical Biotechnology 3(3): 109-115.