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Perceptions And Misperceptions: Consumer Attitudes On Organic And Local — University Of Connecticut Study To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show and Conference

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 25, 2012

At the very heart of The New York Produce Show and Conference is the University Interchange Program, in which great centers of learning reach out to the produce industry and not only lend us their brightest professors to present the most cutting-edge research and thus fulfill their missions to disseminate knowledge, but they also send select students who come to the event to engage with the produce marketers and service suppliers first-hand.

This year, we learned that the University of Connecticut had made a new hire and that he was doing most interesting work regarding organic and local. We were thrilled to expand the University Exchange Program and include Professor Benjamin Campbell and students from UConn.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to gain some insight as to what Professor Campbell will be presenting in New York on December 5th:

Benjamin Campbell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor and Extension Economist
Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics
University of Connecticut
Storrs, Connecticut

Q: It is exciting to learn that the University of Connecticut has joined the University Interchange Program at The New York Produce Show and Conference and that you will be chaperoning students as well as giving a presentation. Could you provide a preview of your talk and tell us a little about yourself and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UConn?

A: I’ve just been here a short time after heading the economics program at Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a horticulture nonprofit research organization in Montréal, Canada. My whole career has involved fruit and vegetable research.

Q: What types of research have you specialized in?

A: My focus has been on analyzing consumer preferences and consumer behavior to better understand the marketplace. Why do people do what they do in regard to purchases, and how can that guide production aspects? It can take 10 years to develop rose horticulture, for instance. If 10 years down the line, people don’t want to buy it, you’ve wasted an enormous amount of resources. How can you increase sales based on different criteria and attributes? 

A research position came open at UConn to conduct these kinds of studies, which is fairly unusual right now. Generally, most people in the program are professors, and research is a small extension component, only about 25 percent. I’m not teaching classes and mostly conducting research. Several projects I’m pursuing center on economic impacts.

The UConn ag program has different groups working in animal science, plant science, agricultural research, consumer behavior, nutrition and obesity, environmental production, and other disciplines across the map. I’m with the plant science horticulture group, and we all have specialties. We’re working together to get funding and provide our expertise in pursuit of innovative research.

Q: What will your talk encompass?

A: I’ll be looking to discuss perceptions and misperceptions of local and organic food with comparisons of U.S. and Canadian consumers.  For background, my interest to delve into this topic originated when having a conversation with a Canadian friend, who was committed to buying organic food and only organic.

I asked him what defines organic and his definition was different than mine. He believed organic meant no pesticide use at all, no synthetics, no nothing, and that organic was fresher, better-tasting, and more environmentally friendly. It struck me: How many people are there like you who believe this?  

I decided to do a study, which involved a nationwide survey funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs New Directions and Growing Forward programs. An article delineating the findings will be forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of Agriculture Economics. The paper is still in the editing stages. However the Canadian Journal of Agriculture Economics has been kind enough to allow us to post a still in progress version of the paper here.

Q: What did you learn?

A: We found misperceptions. People believed that organic food tasted better.  Of our sample, 29% said organic meant no natural pesticide use. Another 17% said organic and local were the same thing. When asked about local, 12% believed local was the same as organic. We had 11% saying local implied no synthetic pesticide use.

Q: Did you break out numbers based on consumer demographics, age, shopping behavior, etc.?

A: We used a national random sampling model. We looked at consumer profiles in analyzing survey results, which opened the door to further study. We wanted to widen our research to the U.S. to see if significant variances occurred. How would American consumers characterize organic and local? Would their knowledge and perceptions coincide or contrast with our initial findings in Canada?  

Q: Did you receive government backing through a USDA grant? Have you teamed up with other university ag extension programs to facilitate the project?

A: The US/Canadian comparison survey, which I will spend most of my time talking about at the New York Produce Show, is part of the USDA Federal, State Marketing Improvement Program. I have posted the working paper on line.  

This was definitely a collaborative project, bringing together numerous universities. The other researchers involved in the project were Bridget Behe at Michigan State University; Jennifer Dennis at Purdue University; Charlie Hall at Texas A&M University; Hayk Khachatryan at the University of Florida; Chengyan Yue at the University of Minnesota, and the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre.

Q: In formulating the survey format and questions, did you essentially parallel the approach of the Canadian one? Could you elaborate on the specific questions and how they were phrased?

A: The big question we targeted was set up this way: Survey participants were asked, “Which are the following characteristics of local?” It then gave them a list of 15 different choices, and the consumer could check off as many as they believed apply or none at all. It was not limited to certain products.

The same question was posed for organic, and participants could choose any or all of those 15 characteristics listed. The list included items such as no natural pesticides, non-GMO, longer shelf life, higher price, decreased transport miles, etc.

In our Canadian-only survey, 12% of the sample felt a characteristic of organic was decreased transport miles, apparently mixing it in with local. Canadian organic websites actually raise concerns that consumers are confusing organic and local.

With the U.S. comparison survey, we were interested in two things:  would our numbers validate the Canadian-only survey, and would there be differences between U.S. and Canadian consumers in how they answered the questions?

Q: What was the prognosis?

A: While there were differences, the new study would prove to validate what we had originally found — that consumer misperceptions regarding organic and local are widespread.

Q: What were some of the standouts? Were there any meaningful differences between American and Canadian respondents?

A: In some instances, certain contrasts did emerge. It was a mixed bag in that respect, but in the big picture, the similarities were overwhelming. Canadian consumers tended to be more optimistic about local. For example, a higher percentage of Canadian consumers believed local was more nutritious, tasted better and was more environmentally friendly.

U.S. consumers were more likely to believe local was organic. One in four U.S. participants perceived organic to be a characteristic of local compared to one in five Canadians. As far as pesticide usage, the answers were similar between the U.S. and Canada. Roughly 12 percent checked that no pesticide use was a characteristic for local as well as for organic.

Q: Were the numbers skewed based upon demographic and lifestyle factors? Would a diehard organic consumer have more engrained perceptions than a mainstream shopper, for example? Did you assess buying patterns when analyzing the data?

A: In running the model, we controlled for country variables. We also included questions such as, “How often do you purchase local, how much organic product do you eat, etc.?

Overall, the big thing we found was a correlation between people who purchased organic more and more frequently and the number of positive attributes they linked to organic in the list of 15 characteristics. The more you ate organic, the more entrenched your opinion versus non-organic purchasers.

This goes back to my Canadian friend who had a strong view when defining organic. Organic purchasers were more firm in their beliefs. This was not the same for local purchasers, who had varying perceptions and reasons for buying local.

In general comparisons, we found a lot of swings between Canadian and U.S. consumers with local, but not with organic. Knowledge is subjective. But when we asked participants how knowledgeable they were on characteristics of local and organic, the more they thought they were knowledgeable, the more misperceptions they had between local and organic.

Q: Will the full study be published?

A: The researchers involved with the USDA funded project have a draft they are in the process of finalizing to submit to a peer-reviewed journal. 

Q: Will you be pursuing follow-up studies based on this research?  

A: I’ll be doing other research on organic and local, developing base-line numbers on consumption for local and things of this nature.  

Q: What are the key take-away lessons you’d like to share with attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference?

A: You can’t assume people know what they are buying. Participants in our study often showed naïveté, thinking when they buy local there are no pesticides in the product or that organic is local when it is not. Be aware and understand people have different view points and sometimes they are wrong.

Q: What is the solution?

A: I could say education, which is the obvious answer, but that is difficult to do. People perceive things that are not true and have certain expectations. How do you take someone who truly believes local has no synthetic pesticides and change their mind? This is an issue that has to be addressed. It is certainly a challenge for the produce industry.

Q: Did the survey hone in on fresh fruits and vegetables when examining consumer perceptions of organic and local?

A: Commodities could have been anything. We didn’t narrow it down to produce, betting that it would not have made a difference because most people refer back to fresh produce when thinking about organic and local. By and large, most of these types of purchases are produce. If we did the study again, we might consider questions that focus on produce, especially now with the report that came out of Stanford University.

Q: What is your assessment of the Stanford University study?

A: It concluded that there was no evidence to support that organic produce is healthier or more nutritious than conventional produce. I don’t argue with their conclusions. Yes, the study showed there were different levels of pesticides in those fruits and vegetables that were tested, but the levels all fell within legal safety limits.

Of course there are some who will argue any level of pesticides is unsafe, so will see this study as a way to solidify that fear in their minds. This just reinforces the issues raised in our research regarding consumer misperceptions.

This type of research is crucial for the industry. All too often, we assume that words mean the same things to consumers as they do to the trade — that is often not the case. Is an Idaho potato grown in Idaho or is it any long Russet-type potato? Only actual research can give us a clue.

At the same time, we are shocked at how high a level of consumer literacy on local and organic this research indicates. That only 12% of the sample felt that a characteristic of organic was reduced transit miles or that roughly 12% of respondents thought no pesticide use was a characteristic of local shows very high consumer understanding.

One never gets 100% on anything. We did a project many years ago and got about the same percentage to agree that “Produce for Better Health” was a “Joint US/Russian initiative to use produce to build world peace!”

We look forward to hearing the whole presentation and thus to getting closer to understanding consumer attitudes on these important issues.

If you would like to attend Professor Campbell’s presentation, you can register right here.

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Travel discounts can be found here.

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