KANSAS CITY — As the 21st century transitions from the teens to the twenties, there are signs younger consumers may be more receptive to food technology than was the case a few years ago. Gene editing, molecular modification and cell-cultured meat are among promising technologies that, because of challenges such as climate change and rising food insecurity, may not be reflexively rejected. The change would be welcome given how consumers have reacted to new ingredients and processing practices in the past.
A theme running through consumer trends for many years has been fear — consumer fear of ingredients like artificial colors, flavors and preservatives; a fear of production and processing practices that use chemical pesticides or other chemical treatments; and a fear of new technologies, most notably genetic modification. These fears form the foundation of the clean label, organic, free-from and non-G.M.O. trends.
Despite an overwhelming track record of safety, farmers and food manufacturers have faced near-constant consumer alarm and, quite often, misinformation about new production and processing technologies and practices. Over time, the industry has seen some consumers shift from new and progressive ideas to embracing traditional production methods perceived as less processed or more natural.
Such fears manifested in several ways. In 2015, a survey of 1,000 U.S. consumers by the consultancy Daymon Worldwide found one-third of respondents were more concerned about food product safety and quality than they were in 2014, and 50 per cent said they were more concerned than they were in 2010. Specifically, they feared monosodium glutamate, high mercury levels, bioengineered ingredients, fertilizers and additives.
That same year, the International Food Information Council Foundation’s annual Food and Health Survey found consumers feared chemicals in their food more than foodborne illness. In 2019, foodborne illness regained the top spot of “the most important food safety issues” facing consumers today, but positions two, three, four and five in order were cancer-causing chemicals, chemicals in food, pesticides and pesticide residues, and food additives. Hardly a resounding show of support for advancements in technology.
A possible shift in consumer attitudes may be detected in data released by the communications firm Ketchum, New York. Ketchum found Gen Z is more open to tech-assisted food than older generations, though consumers of all ages are warming to the idea of cell-cultured foods, gene editing, synthetic biology, molecular modifications and other emerging technologies.
Seventy-seven per cent of Gen Z consumers said they are likely to try food made using technology, compared to 67 per cent of millennials, 58 per cent of Gen X and 58 per cent of baby boomers. More than 70 per cent of Gen Z is comfortable overall with the idea of technology being used to grow and make food, compared to 56 per cent of millennials, 51 per cent of Gen X and 58 per cent of baby boomers.
A lesson from the past that must be applied moving forward is the importance of messaging. Despite overwhelming evidence of the safety of pesticides, bovine somatotropin and G.M.O.s, each technology suffered setbacks because consumers did not appreciate the benefits. Younger consumers are interested in learning more. It’s incumbent upon the industry to fill that void.