Consider proactively differentiating your products from conventional versions rather than waiting for the public and lawmakers to get scared and force you to.
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Novel food technologies continue to emerge, but some become widely accepted by consumers while others languish in perception purgatory or die out altogether. In two papers, Lehman College Assistant Professor Joseph Mohorcich looks at the choices and strategies that can hasten or hurt the adoption of novel food technologies. The first, “What can the adoption of GM foods teach us about the adoption of other food technologies?” (https://bit.ly/3eQiOgy) focuses on genetically modified (GM) foods in general. The second, “Cell-cultured meat: Lessons from GMO adoption and resistance,” published in Appetite (https://bit.ly/31CewFP), is a peer-reviewed, updated version zeroing in on cell-cultured meat.

Both papers exam how GM food became an object of controversy in the US and EU. Included among the findings were: perceptions of food companies as secretive and aggressive damaged GM food adoption; genetic engineering firms understood their work to be humanitarian and environmentally friendly and so were unprepared for popular backlash; technology adoption is more readily affected by consumer activism when buyers exert more pressure on sellers than the reverse; and focusing on the positive aspects of a technology is more successful for encouraging its adoption than responding to negative perceptions.

To provide food producers seeking to introduce new food technologies with further insights and recommendations, QA discussed the findings with Mohorcich.

QA. In your paper, you state that adoption of GMOs has been damaged by their being “riddled with controversy for five decades” and consumer perception of companies as “secretive and aggressive.” What can companies do to change this perception?

Mohorcich. Well, they can be less secretive and aggressive. That perception didn’t come from thin air; Monsanto in particular expanded aggressively into European markets in the 1990s in a way that was probably detrimental to GM food as a whole.

QA. With opposition to technology seeming to rise in conjunction with press coverage and increased awareness, how does a company communicate so as to not appear secretive?

Mohorcich. Firms should consider proactively differentiating their products from conventional versions rather than waiting for the public and lawmakers to get scared and force them to, for example. Be wary of a patent-and-lawsuit approach to intellectual property; this worsened perceptions of secrecy for GM producers.

QA. You also state, “Focusing on the positive aspects of a technology has been more successful for encouraging its adoption than focusing on responding to negative perceptions.” So, should a company focus on food safety which inherently responds to the negative?

Mohorcich. It depends how food safety is framed. But, yes, an overwhelming focus on food safety is likely to make people ask, “Wait, is something unsafe about this?” Conventional meat, for example, is one of the most contaminant-prone things a human can eat, but meat ads focus on quality, taste, nutrition, etc., not about how they’ve implemented a new system that makes fecal contamination 85% less likely.

To be clear, as a technical question of resources and manufacturing, cell-cultured food companies should be obsessive about food safety, because the stakes of a contamination or safety breach for them are higher than they are for established foods. But as a public messaging strategy, the evidence suggests that talking a lot about food safety is not effective, in part because it simply makes more people worry about the safety of your products.

QA. GM “products for direct human consumption were much more likely to be dropped than products intended for processing or animal consumption.” What does this mean for the food industry?

Mohorcich. People are sensitive about things they put in their own bodies. But they don’t care as much about the things that the cows and pigs eat that they’re going to eat. So, if you’re going to develop products for humans to eat, you have to be more careful than you otherwise would.

QA. How does Europe’s stance against GM crops impact the US? The world?

Mohorcich. It hampers the spread of GM food and GM development generally. The EU is about 16% of the world economy, and the global food system is fairly interconnected, which means if one region bans GM ingredients, anyone growing GM crops can’t sell to anyone in that region, or to anyone who sells to anyone in that region, and so on. Also, other regulatory systems in other regions take their cues from Europe (among other places). So there exists a perception that the Europeans have, in their wisdom, banned GM ingredients for a good reason. We don’t want to lag behind, so perhaps we should ban GM ingredients too.

The US specifically isn’t as affected because its regulatory stance has been quite different, but it is indirectly affected because of who can sell to whom and because a European moratorium on GM crops means the incentives to develop new GM foods are reduced.

QA. In the paper, you state, “It seems likely that technologies with large, obvious benefits are more likely to be adopted and less likely to face backlash.” But you add that that’s not necessarily the case. Discuss this.

Mohorcich. This point is mostly intuitive: stuff that’s immensely helpful and for which there are no substitutes — think antibiotics, for example — can overcome concerns about unnaturalness by virtue of being so useful. But this isn’t an ironclad law: vaccines, which are hugely useful but also have faced various sorts of backlash from their inception, are an obvious counterexample. So, on balance, having obvious benefits can help your product achieve acceptance, but relying on it as though it guarantees acceptance is unwise.

QA. Consumers are more driven by “acceptability” than by science. What does this mean to a company developing or implementing new food technology?

Mohorcich. Many think in terms of acceptability rather than risk-reward balancing. This means, among other things, that the technical facts about a product’s usefulness or safety create background conditions for acceptance rather than guaranteeing it. Underlying facts matter, and can influence the way something is framed, but ultimately the framing of a product or issue matters more for public acceptance. 

QA. How do the findings of your study impact the adoption of today’s, and tomorrow’s, new food technologies?

Mohorcich. The Appetite article has about 11 concrete findings, but the short version is:

  • If you’re a food producer, don’t assume your good intentions are durable or convincing.
  • Sometimes targeted regulation can ease fears and improve, rather than hamper, prospects for adoption.
  • Historically, neither apocalyptic nor utopian predictions for a new technology virtually ever turn out to be true. (You can practically count the counterexamples on one hand: penicillin, nuclear weapons, the MOS transistor.) So, if someone in your organization is talking endlessly about how you’re going to radically change all calorie delivery forever, you should mentally divide their predictions by 100 or so.
  • Supply chain structures influence adoption in invisible ways. For example, a supply chain in which sellers are more susceptible to pressure from buyers than the reverse means that resistance to a food technology can travel “up” a supply chain, from consumers to retailers to distributors to producers, as it did with GM food in Europe. (For the full list, see Findings and Recommendations in the Appetite article.)
QA. What are the greatest obstacles faced by companies in furthering new food technologies?
Mohorcich. In general, the mechanism of descent with modification has had a 3.5-billion-year head start and is good at ferreting out niches and minor advantages in things like the production and consumption of calories, nutrition, and so forth. This means a lot of human “innovations” around food aren’t especially useful (with startling and rare exceptions like the Green Revolution). And when they are useful, they’re often to correct or cover deficiencies that humans themselves created. So, developing useful stuff rather than gimmicky stuff is hard. In the area of adoption, people like the stuff they’re already doing and don’t want to do new stuff. This makes widespread adoption hard, rare, and slow. When color TVs first came out, people told opinion pollsters that they didn’t like them, didn’t want them, and preferred B&W. It took generational turnover combined with immense buy-in from institutions like broadcast networks combined with 20 years of technological improvements and cost declines to get people to watch The Andy Griffith Show in color. Color TVs were commercialized in 1953. They didn’t reach sales parity with B&W sets until 1972. Imagine all that for a technology where the differences are much less obvious than black and white versus color.
QA. What, if anything, has the COVID-19 pandemic brought out about in new technologies and consumer perception?

Mohorcich. It’s too early to say. It seems cataclysmic events like pandemics both crystalize and confuse the stakes of a technology or technique. For example, many people inside and outside of government are very enthusiastic about the prospect of developing a vaccine by any means necessary to make this widespread and stubborn upper respiratory illness go away. Many of these same people are indifferent to public health interventions that would reduce or eliminate problems that are comparable to COVID. Malaria, for example, kills over 400,000 people most years, which is how many COVID deaths have been reported (as of this writing), but malaria has been doing this every year more or less since ancient Sumer.

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.