Understanding Consumer Preferences for Gene-Edited Food

Through her doctoral research, AFRE graduate student Valerie Kilders explores how consumers perceive and value different gene-edited food products in different settings.

The 2020 Nobel prize for Chemistry went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna for their discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Since their discovery, the genetic scissors have been pivotal in revolutionizing the use of biotechnology as part of a process referred to as gene-editing. Gene-editing allows researchers to make precise changes in the DNA of an organism of interest, which in the case of agriculture holds great potential for the breeding of both plants and animals.  Recognizing the world-changing significance of this technology, Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE) Ph.D. student, Valerie Kilders has conducted in-depth research into how this new technology is perceived by consumers. 

AFRE Graduate Student, Valerie Kilders

Kilders’ first project, in which she collaborated with her advisor, Assistant Professor Vincenzina Caputo, combined research on consumer acceptance of gene-editing with animal welfare perceptions. Previous literature identified animal welfare as highly important to consumers and showed that negative impacts on animal welfare are among the main consumer concerns when evaluating the genetic engineering of food. A new gene-editing application has the ability to actually increase animal welfare by preventing the growth of horns in dairy cows, thus eliminating the need for a painful dehorning process. Kilders explored how consumers’ willingness-to-pay for milk from these genetically dehorned cows changes depending on the information given to the respondents using a hypothetical choice experiment.

Kilders created and designed four informational videos, which were shown to respondents as part of the underlying information treatments contained in the survey. The individual videos displayed different combinations of information on the gene-editing technology itself, how gene-editing differs from the first generation of genetic engineering and lastly how it can contribute to increasing animal welfare. Depending on the assigned treatment, respondents were shown one of four videos. The videos can be found through the following link.

The corresponding survey was distributed to around 1,000 U.S. consumers. Kilders and Caputo found that consumer preferences willingness-to-pay for milk produced from conventionally and genetically dehorned cows is heavily impacted by information on animal welfare. For example, information on animal welfare implications of the technology led to a substantially increased likelihood of acceptance of biotechnologies on average, while information on how gene-editing differs to more traditional methods of genetic engineering decreased the likelihood of acceptance on average.

Moreover, using an advanced methodology referred to as semi-parametric choice models, Kilders and Caputo were able to observe how preferences were distributed across the entire respondent pool depending on the treatment they were assigned to. The authors found that providing respondents with more information leads to a much wider division in preferences among the respondents meaning with more information some respondents develop negative perceptions of the technology, while others view it very positively. This uncovers a further polarization of preferences and confirms that not all information is created equal, which has been ignored in a variety of previous studies. The resulting article was published in the Journal of Agricultural Economics, a leading publication in the field of agricultural economics.

With support from the Food Marketing Institute, Kilders and Caputo teamed up with Purdue University Professor Jayson Lusk to take on a second consumer biotechnology study. The team explored how consumer’s preferences and demand for gene-edited food products compared to respectively labeled organic, non-GMO, conventional and bioengineered alternatives. Kilders and her colleagues administered an online survey to almost 4,500 U.S. food shoppers in September 2019. Different treatments were set up which varied the food product, whether the product was fresh or processed, and the information provided about gene-editing. Respondents were randomly grouped into the treatments. In each case, respondents completed simulated purchasing scenarios where they chose between products labeled to be organic, non-GMO, bioengineered, conventional, or gene-edited at varied price levels

The study found that U.S. consumers have poor knowledge of gene-editing technologies and suggested the use of specific benefit messages to increase consumer acceptance of gene-edited food. The project report garnered national recognition, with more than 15 media articles being written about the research.

Beyond the article in the Journal of Agricultural Economics and the project report, Kilders has published in the Food Policy journal with Caputo and AFRE Associate Professor Saweda Liverpool-Tasie. With regards to her future research, Valerie is looking at expanding her expertise on gene-editing to consumer issues in the grape and wine sector, such as powdery mildew control. Moreover, she is also working on providing methodological advances to the field by working on multi-choice models and reference dependent pricing in food choice experiments.

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