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The Science Of Product Messaging: How Unbiased Information On Pesticides, Fungicides, Herbicides, Organics, GMO And CRISPR Can Affect Consumer Buying Behavior. UGA’s Ben Campbell Unveils New Report At New York Produce Show

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 3, 2019

When Ben Campbell started out with The New York Produce Show and Conference, he was a professor at the University of Connecticut. During the event, Ben and his students participated in our University Interchange program, which provides a forum for university professors to share cutting-edge research with the trade and thus help fulfill their mission to disseminate knowledge, while also providing an educational and mentorship program for students. He found the program so valuable, that when he moved on to the University of Georgia he asked if we would expand the program. Which we did.

Professor Campbell has presented on a number of important topics, including these:

Setting Producers Free — Production Agriculture And The Regulatory Burden: Can States Help Northeast Production Thrive? Are They Inclined To Do So?

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

Connecticut Professor Ben Campbell Comes Back To The New York Produce Show With Seminal Work On Consumer Reaction To The Marketing Of Locally Grown Produce 

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects editor Mira Slott to see what the good professor has in store for attendees this year:

Ben Campbell
Assistant Professor, 
Department of Agricultural and
Applied Economics,

University of Georgia

New York Produce Show attendees await your thought-provoking consumer research, measuring how different variables influence and impact produce shoppers’ perceptions and purchasing decisions.

In 2018, you delved into the multitude of ways consumers can access information to understand how various generations are getting information about produce, while also analyzing how these methods are impacting purchasing. You also have presented on organic and local. What do you have planned for this year?

A: This year, my research examines how giving consumers information about GMO’s, CRISPR, organic and pesticides impacts their likelihood of purchasing different products.

Q: That’s a hot topic with the new federal and state labeling laws, increased pesticide restrictions, and the influence on retail buying...

A: The emphasis is very much the new labeling laws coming into place with GMOs, and new technologies, and a lot of retail policies banning particular production methods. For instance, you see neonicotinoids being banned in Maryland, and these pollinators being phased out in Home Depot and Lowes of a lot or all of their plant stock. There are new pesticide bans in homes in Ontario, and within school grounds in Connecticut and New York. When looking at produce, there are issues with GMO’s and pesticides in the production process as well.

We see bans of products in different areas, and a lot of misinformation about products. People often don’t understand GMOs, but they are very much not in favor of them.  So, you’re against something but you don’t know what it is. You see this phenomenon across the board in relation to different chemicals and pesticides too. And even with organic, misinformation abounds. There’s strong lobbying against something or for it and mixed messaging.

Q: How do you set out to understand the impacts of that cacophonous messaging?

A:  I was interested in discovering if we gave people fact-based information about what these production methods are, how would that effect their perceptions or influence their potential purchase of these foods, plants and turf, which use these production practices.

Can information impact the role of production practices on the decision to purchase, and more specifically the type of message and source of message.

One of our objectives was the premise that consumer sentiment drives policy changes at the federal, state and local levels, and at retail, and how these decisions could translate into policy implications.  

Q: Could you describe the study methodology. What types of production practices were included and what products?  What information did you provide participants?

A: We gave participants different treatments and defined the technology of each, looking at three segments: food, plants and turf. The production practices included insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, CRISPR, GMO and organic. Here’s the meaning of what this is and the information on how this production practice works.

Q: Were these scientific definitions? How detailed or complex were the descriptions? Were they consumer-friendly?

A: We purposefully adhered to scientific information for the different treatments, though at a level that non-scientists can understand.  

Editor’s note: here are the definitions provided to participants:

*CRISPR: a new biotechnology that allows scientists to directly edit an organisms’ genetic material (DNA). This does not require transferring DNA from one organism to another.

*Genetically-Modified Organism (GMO): an organism in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered through the use of modern biotechnologies. The alteration typically involves transferring DNA from one organism to another.

*Insecticide: a pesticide that is used to eliminate or repel insects.

*Fungicide: a pesticide that is used to eliminate or prevent the growth of fungi, molds, and their spores.

*Herbicide: a pesticide that is used to eliminate or prevent the growth of plants

*Organic: the application of a set of cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on-farm-resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. These include maintaining or enhancing soil and water quality, conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife and forbidding use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation and genetic engineering.

Q: These scientific definitions aren’t really that appealing when talking about food! Did people understand these terms, or want further explanation or context on usage? The GMO and CRISPR definitions don’t seem likely to allay a consumer’s pre-disposed concern about the effect these technologies could have on a food item. Although, I could see the draw of wanting to purchase produce void of insects, fungi and mold...

A: Some people got it. Some people didn’t. Most people have never heard of CRISPR. We divvied people into groups to determine how likely they would be to buy the product based on the information we provided them on the production practices of that product.

Q: How were the groups formed?

A: Respondents were randomly divided into the treatment groups. After being randomly placed into a treatment group, they were given the information treatment associated with that treatment group.

We had a control group that didn’t receive any information, we just said CRISPR or GMO...

Q: Who participated in the study, the numbers, demographics, how did you glean people’s preferences, etc.

A: We did an online survey of 2,500 respondents in the spring/summer of 2019. It included Southeastern US residents in nine states with 10-20 percent of participants per state. The average age was 44 and the average income was $50,000. We had 64 percent female and 71 percent Caucasian.

Q: Did you assess the participant’s knowledge, or perceived knowledge, of each practice going into the study for a relative comparison? Did you break down the sample further to determine, for example, if some consumers were more prone to buy organic...

A: Not exactly in that way, but we asked about knowledge level, how knowledgeable are you about organic...and I will show the effects of that in our model.

Q: So, this is the knowledge level that is perceived by the participant, not necessarily the correct knowledge?

A: Yes, that’s an important point. We know the odds are that consumers are not correct in their knowledge of the production practices, but perception is the reality. We wanted to find out their perceived knowledge of the different production practices.  With 0 = No Knowledge; 50 = Somewhat Knowledgeable; and 100 = Extremely Knowledgeable. 

Organic was the highest rated. People said they had the most knowledge of it at 64 for food, 62 for plants, and 60 for turf. Organic stood out relative to all the other practices, where there was much less fluctuation. This compared to both GMO and CRISPR at 44 for food, 44 for plants, and 45 for turf. Insecticides 42 for food, 47 for plants and 48 for turf; herbicide 45 for food, 47 for plants, and 48 for turf; and fungicide, 43 for food, 45 for plants and 48 for turf.

Q: What can be learned from this?

A: Interestingly, people indicated they were more knowledgeable about pesticides as they are applied to turf but less knowledgeable as they are applied to their food, though we see moves to eliminate pesticides on food even though people say they are not that knowledgeable. From a produce standpoint, this is informative, first because consumers are not knowledgeable, and second because consumers who are not knowledgeable are making demands on produce production methods or are not able to knowledgably engage with activists in the discussion.

Q: Since you’ll be presenting this information to executives in the fresh produce industry, what was included in the food category? Did you distinguish between fresh produce and processed items?

A: In looking at the food category as a whole, by and large it’s going to be an ingredient, a GMO or CRISPR is going to be applied at the production level, so it’s not directly targeting produce. 

Q: The reason I ask,  Brad Rickard of Cornell, a veteran like you at our New York Produce Shows, has presented fascinating research related to this topic. In one study he conducted, consumer acceptance of GMO’s changed based on the food category (grain crop, fruit or beef) and the level of processing. For instance, consumers showed more willingness to buy the GM processed products relative to their GM fresh versions.

A: In our study, we’re focused on the impact of messaging. So, in this case, if you’re more accepting of a treatment in processed food, would knowledge of the treatment push you to be more accepting? Similarly, if you’re less accepting of a treatment in fresh produce, will knowledge make you more accepting. Conversely, will more information about insecticides, herbicides, and fungicide usage on conventional produce increase acceptance, and could that lessen acceptance of organic, which restricts that use?

Q: So, the scale of acceptance might change on processed versus fresh, but that’s not what you’re measuring in this study...

A: We’re interested to see if our messaging is going to nudge a consumer’s acceptance and willingness to purchase one way or the other; that’s what we’re focused on in this study.

Q: That’s interesting, because now you’re looking at a domino effect of how knowledge of one type of production practice could change acceptance of products in several categories...

A: What we found, in fact, is if we showed participants information about pesticides — the message that pesticides are used to eliminate insects — or fungicides  — and the growth of fungi, molds, and their spores — or herbicides to get rid of the problem plant… if you got that message, you rated organic lower.

If it’s an apple or a processed apple, I don’t think the differences will be that big. The result is still moving in the same direction. Receiving the information on pesticides nudges the participants on likeliness to purchase conventional over organic.

Q: How are you defining nudge? Could there be a noticeable change in purchasing choices if consumers received such messaging?

A: Messaging can have marginal impacts. The lesson here is around the messaging and consumer knowledge — actually, perceived knowledge.  If I think I know more about CRISPR, I’m more accepting of buying that product. So, this is about getting the information out there. That information impacts how we view these things. 

If someone views pesticides as bad, providing an explanation negates some of the mysteries of pesticides —  I understand why they’re using it, and I’m less likely to buy organic and more likely to buy something produced with insecticides. We see this movement here. This messaging can impact the perceived value of different products, and the effects on each other.

Q: Doesn’t it get complicated, though, since there are so many different types of pesticides, and regulations, safe levels of use, etc., and sometimes frightening media reports can lump them all together?

A: Organic is often viewed as less risky for that reason.

Q: If someone is a diehard organic shopper, they might not be as flexible to change...

A: You’re not changing people on the endpoints, you’re changing people in the middle. We’re looking at the average person, not those on the extremes. You’re not changing the person who is diehard organic, or diehard anti-organic. Their minds are set. You’re shifting perceptions of those in the middle. 

Q: How important is pricing in this equation? Did you consider this? For example, isn’t there a correlation of organic produce purchases increasing when the pricing is more on par with the conventional counterpart? 

A: Yes, pricing certainly could have an impact. For this study, we wanted everything else to be constant, to control for what the message was when consumers were considering acceptance of the different treatments. If an herbicide is used or an insecticide is used, what is the effect of that on consumer purchase decisions?

We chose to give participants a scientific definition instead of doing something more general. The reason we did this is, in the marketplace you see a lot of different labels, and best practice claims, both good and bad. We wanted to see if we gave consumers fact-based information, might that affect their views on these foods that have these different characteristics?

Q: Did you consider homing in on particular products, such as an Arctic apple, where the genetically engineered practice prevents browning, and how that quality might change a consumer’s likelihood of purchasing it? Also, what if you used a more consumer-friendly description of the production process with clever marketing as can be found on the Arctic apple website

A: These variables certainly could play a role... We intentionally kept the definitions scientific to alleviate the positive and negative biases.

Q: You note the broad scope of labeling, certifications and product claims vying for consumer attention. You’ve done other studies analyzing consumer acceptance and perceptions or misperceptions of these various labels (environmental labeling, local, organic, natural, bee-friendly, etc.). For instance, I remember in one study, you found that some consumers thought that local and organic were interchangeable. Are you taking these types of influences into account when you’re conducting your analysis?

A: We touch on them, and will discuss them in our presentation, but by and large, we’re going to stick with the production processes and focus on the ones coming under threat, like GMO, and CRISPR. Local is not one of those, because it’s here to stay. With respect to environmentally friendly labels, those are out there, but we can see that insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, GMO, and CRISPR are the ones really on the forefront now of consumer protests and where people have strong opinions.

Q: Based on your study parameters and methodology, what did you learn? What is most illuminating for produce executives?

A: I can give you some examples from the charts I’ll be presenting...

With no information, the likeliness to purchase organic was 60, but when given information about pesticides, your score for organic went down to 57. That’s a 3 percent drop in your likeliness to purchase a product, so that’s what we’re seeing.

We see that giving consumers information about pesticides had a small effect on their likeliness to purchase organic. When you hear messaging now, you hear that organic is better because no pesticides are used. But we know that consumers indicate they are not knowledgeable about pesticides. When we give them minimal information about pesticides, they move slightly away from organics.

That example was for turf. For food, it went from 64 to 62.

Q: Is that statistically relevant?

A: A two percent shift doesn’t sound like a lot, but we’re seeing these differences here, which could move people in the middle. Though it sounds marginal, we know that for many consumers, production method makes up a small part of their purchasing decision. If you weaken the case for organic, then it will decrease the likelihood of paying a higher price for organic and thereby lower the probability of purchasing organic.

Q: What movement occurs when you introduce CRISPR and GMO information?

A: For CRISPR and GMO, showing CRISPR info moved the rating from 44 (no info) to 46 (CRISPR info); for GMO: 44 (no info) to 42 (CRSPR info); GMO: 44 (no info) to 41 (GMO info). This indicates that providing GMO info hurts GMO purchasing; GMO: 44 ( no info) to 46 (all info) –this  implies when looking at all the different methods, GMO is not seen as bad; CRISPR: 44 (no info) to 46 (CRISPR info) -providing CRISPR info helps with purchasing; CRISPR: 44 (no info) to 40 (GMO info) – GMO info causes a negative reaction to CRISPR.

Q: If you add in other variables of shopping in a grocery store, the changes could be much more significant...

A: That’s right. Two years ago, we examined price premiums and how pricing could impact the market. Once you start adding or subtracting premiums or discounts, that makes a difference. Even if you’re at a higher price, I can generate or negate that price premium, through messaging impacts.

We had five percent of the group that would not purchase food with insecticides. These were diehards on the endpoints. And when we gave the group the information on insecticides, that 5 percent of diehards dropped to 2 percent that would not purchase the product. We are talking a 3 percent swing, or getting them from, “I’m not buying,” to being open to buying now.

Q: Did you break down the results by demographics?

A: There are things going on demographic-wise. We see with GMOs, older people are less likely to buy GMOs. People in rural areas didn’t like GMOs as much, but by and large, the big thing is, the more people perceive they know about these production practices, the more likely they are to consider buying these products with these practices.

Q: But you can’t really control people’s perceptions, or whether they grasped the scientific definition you provided... The type of information and the way it’s communicated seems to be very important.

A: Yes.  It depends on what you want to do. If you’re selling organic, you don’t want to give people the scientific information on pesticides. If you’re selling something traditional, non-organic, providing information about production practices and why you’re doing it can be a way to counter organics.

It’s the same with CRISPR and GMO, in terms of how consumers perceive your product, and in turn other products in a different way.

Q: This goes back to all the information out there that is not always scientific and scares people... Some of that information can be quite impressionable. One of the issues magnified by vocal GMO opponents is the unknowns, or the long-term potential negative effects of consumption of GMOs... Your definition of CRISPR and GMO outlines scientifically how the practice works, but doesn’t address the impacts these alterations could have, either positive or negative. For instance, there is no mention of the positive attributes of the Arctic apple non-browning trait.

A: The key is the information you give will be a nudge to the average consumer, more so than those on the endpoints. The information you give can be powerful. It can have a meaningful effect on those people in the middle who may have strong opinions but can be influenced.

Q: To clarify, you just asked consumers about food, in general, without segmenting food categories, like fruits and vegetables, and you didn’t give them examples?

A:  No, we didn’t. The problem is there are so many examples and categories. If the notion is your likeliness to buy a GMO apple is less than a GMO Pop Tart, the nudge to change that likeliness is what we’re interested in measuring based on receiving information on the production practice of GMO.  You’ll see that nudge going in the same direction with either one. I can spin it toward produce or food, in general, but the message stays the same; it’s just the starting point differs, as Brad Rickard showed in his study that you referenced earlier.  Could we ask about produce directly, yes, but then you lose the process we set for this study.

Q: Miguel Gómez of Cornell will be revealing his latest peer-reviewed research, which will be hot off the press, at the NYPS, related to potential impacts of new GMO labeling requirements and non-GMO labeling counter-plays. It specifically targets strawberries, potatoes and apples. [Editor’s note, a sneak preview Q&A piece is here].  

A: I’m looking forward to seeing his presentation. I have a study, now in review, looking at tomatoes and tomato plants with GMO and non-GMO labels, and no labels, and those differences, and as a plant or as the product you buy at the supermarket to eat. The differences of how consumers perceive these things is there.

Labeling and how you message matters… how you message can impact how consumers feel about your products and other’s products. So, if you’re giving people good information about pesticide usage, it could have a positive impact on people’s views of your product if you’re using those practices, and a detrimental impact on organic purchases. If you provide information de-mystifying GMO or CRISPR, it could have a negative effect on purchases of non-GMO, or non-CRISPR products. That’s the point I’m trying to get across.

This messaging is interdependent. If you put a GMO label on one thing, it could have a detrimental impact on something else.

Q: Are you interested in extending this study in anyway? For instance, taking it from surveys to an actual supermarket setting, or as you’ve done in other instances, arrange scenarios where you’re interviewing consumers in person and presenting them with actual products...

A: That’s always the ideal, but it’s challenging to conduct studies like that. The problem is getting access to stores to do it. Retailers sometimes don’t like you telling consumers about the products in the stores and giving them different messages about pesticides, GMOs, and CRISPR. That can be tricky, so a lot of times we stick to the online surveys or conducting our research outside of stores. I would love to go into stores and change prices of organic products and see how demand changes...

Where we go from here — the next step… I’m working on a study looking at plants and the media message, what’s the source of the information, and how that impacts consumer perceptions. I would love to understand if the information is from a producer versus a retailer versus an association, versus a mass media outlet. What would happen if each of these players told you the same message, how would that influence the different choices? If an ag group told you about GMOs versus a retailer telling you about GMOs, would that impact the message and your purchasing decision?  

Q: That research sounds fascinating...

A: My hypothesis would be if the information was coming from an activist group, the consumer would take the information more seriously... generally people trust universities; they don’t trust the government that much. They trust activists, they don’t trust retailers as much; they don’t trust industry associations as much. You have these different groups that are vying for power and influence, in respect to getting information out.

Q: It’s an interesting hypothesis to test. Will consumers be more accepting of a scientific-based, academic study debunking the EWG Dirty Dozen claims than if they are warned to stay away from produce on the Dirty Dozen list on the Today Show or Dr. Oz? Further, if the messenger of that scientific-based study is the Alliance for Food and Farming, an industry organization, will that influence the consumers’ perception of its accuracy? We’ve been reporting on these issues for many years.

A: At the NYPS, I’ll talk about the production-practices messaging study we did, and the next steps...

If you put a government GMO label on a product, it may have a detrimental impact on the consumer’s desire to purchase that product. But what we found in this study was if the GMO label also comes with good information describing what it is, the consumers could be nudged toward that GM product, and affect how they view other products. In the same way, pesticides are not all bad when you tell consumers what they are, and why they’re used. They may move incrementally toward the pesticide group, especially with plants, and away from the organic alternative. When people understand what it is, they are less likely to fear it and thereby say they are more likely to buy it.

Q: Did any of the results surprise you?  

A: I expected if you provided pesticide information, it was only going to have an impact on pesticide products. I wasn’t expecting to see so much cross effect on the other products, in respect to pesticides impacting organic, and GMO’s impacting CRISPR and organic.

Q: What are the main issues you’d like produce suppliers and retailers to ponder? Is it fair to say — based on the parameters of this study, that on average the data indicated little or marginal impact on respondents’ opinions and decisions to purchase...?

A: I would say it differently: Some messaging had small impacts… though small, it could be the difference between purchasing and not purchasing if the product is similar in price, appearance, etc. There are cross effects for many of the messages, in that a message effects views of other production methods.

Messaging can have a marginal impact, but given the cross effects, produce producers and retailers need to be careful that promoting one message does not detrimentally impact another production method used.

******

For all the talk about people really wanting to know their farmers and to know where their food comes from, there is actually precious little evidence that consumers at your typical Walmart are anxious to extend their shopping trip to allow for in-depth information to be exchanged about products and their origins and impact on people and the world.

For at least the past 15 years, the industry has been on an all out effort to educate consumers about the Dirty Dozen report issued each year. What success the effort has had is more with journalists to, in some cases, hold back on reflexively promoting the report as meaningfully scientific.

So the question is not only what knowledge might get consumers to act differently, but how we can actually get consumers to absorb that knowledge.

With an explosion of new technology and new labeling rules, this is an important issue for industry discussion.

Come and join the discussion. Hear Professor Campbell’s report and engage in the topic afterwards.

You can register to attend The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

We can help you get hotel rooms here.

Check out the website right here.

Join us at the New York Produce Show and Conference and be part of the discussion that moves the industry ahead!

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