Among issues fervently controverted in the media, classrooms, or any social gathering is the genetic engineering (GE) of foods. Debate on nutritional quality, health benefits, and economic value can be intense. Some argue that the process yields salubrious options that also benefit producers by making the production process more efficient. Others recognize that we cannot observe long-term health effects just yet. While the validity of any argument on the topic depends on the crop discussed, the discourse is important.
According to Rachel Saputo, a graduate student at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, conducting research under Bradley J. Rickard, whether a producer decides to grow GE crops or not depends on a number of different variables. She says, “Some of these factors include the size of their operation, the market the farmers are selling to, and the associated costs. Genetic engineering can be promising, and whether a crop is a good candidate is decided on a case-by-case basis. Some studies show that GE crops are as safe as conventional foods, but because this is a new technology, many customers are still wary about potential side effects.”
Linked—Food Choices, Food Waste, and Food Security
Saputo’s work is an investigation of how consumers make food choices and the implications of these choices for food security. Analysts estimate that global agricultural production will need to increase by 70 percent to meet the needs of a burgeoning global population forecasted to surpass nine billion by 2050. Many academics and practitioners cite mitigating food waste as one solution of ensuring future food security.
“Recent scientific advances have greatly increased the potential role genetic modification can play in reducing humanity’s environmental impact,” says Saputo. “For example, a stated, marketed benefit of the Innate Potato and the Arctic Apple, developed within the last few years, is that they can reduce food waste. However, whether this is actually realized depends on whether producers adopt these varieties, which in turn depends primarily on consumer acceptance of these GE products.”
Prior research suggests that there is some stigma against items explicitly labeled as genetically modified, and consumers want to pay less for them. Policies mandating such disclosure, however, are relatively new, so there is not much substantive empirical evidence to corroborate this hypothesis.
One example of regulation is Vermont’s GE labeling law, which went into effect in July 2016. “Now, some companies, such as Frito Lay, Campbell, and General Mills are practicing full disclosure when it comes to GE ingredients. But for years before this, large food companies have been fighting similar initiatives such as Proposition 37 in California, which was deliberated in 2012,” says Saputo.
Companies are concerned that revealing GE status might signal to consumers that these foods are not as safe for consumption, leading to psychological aversion and reduction in sales. Legal and behavioral elements are further complicated by a parallel growth in the popularity of organic and non-GMO options and by the industry’s increasing propensity toward transparency.
From Food Connoisseur to Food Policy Analyst
Saputo is not just a researcher interested in the applied economics of GE foods or the political and health-related dimensions of the issue. A passion for food lies at the core of her work.
“My parents are great cooks,” she remarks, “I’m interested in studying food because I grew up loving it. And then I spent my undergraduate years at University of California, Santa Barbara studying environmental science. The food culture there is incredible. I developed my cooking skills and even considered culinary school before I came to Cornell. So in a way, my passion extended from home, through college, growing with each visit to Santa Barbara’s farmers markets. Central California is a big producer of fruits and vegetables, and there was always plenty of fresh, delicious, and seasonal produce. When I took a class in world agriculture during my senior year, I realized I wanted to work in the food industry.”
Upon graduating, Saputo worked for a kale chip company in the Bay Area for two years, where her office was located just above the production facility. While most of her job entailed administrative, sales, and marketing functions, she also had the opportunity to understand the raw materials sourcing and production processes.
"Some studies show that GE crops are as safe as conventional foods, but because this is a new technology, many customers are still wary about potential side effects.”
“I decided then that I wanted to pursue graduate school,” she recounts, “but there aren’t very many programs devoted entirely to agricultural and food policy. Since Cornell is highly regarded for their agricultural research, I enrolled in the master of professional studies program in Applied Behavioral Economics and met Dr. Rickard, who was appointed as my adviser.”
Saputo’s first project under Rickard’s counsel was studying how food date labels, such as “use by” and “fresh until” contribute to food waste. In the absence of regulatory framework, the process for determining which labels are attached to products is disorganized, and the institutional structure is convoluted. Date labels for meat, eggs, and dairy fall under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), while some other products are under the United States Food and Drug Administration. State and local authorities can also enact additional labeling laws.
Food and Consumer Perception
Wanting to develop her quantitative skills, Saputo transferred to the master of science program within the Dyson School, continuing her collaboration with Rickard and her current research, funded by a USDA grant, on GE, consumer perception, and food security.
Saputo captures human preferences and propensities by having people take a simple survey with five sets of choices. Within each set, research participants are presented two versions of a food product: a conventional Frito-Lay brand and the Simply version of that same item with packaging, featuring attribute certifications organic, non-GMO, or both. Subjects are asked to choose between these two products several times as the price is varied, so that the Simply variation is either 30, 50, or 80 cents more expensive than the alternative. Additionally, for one question in each set, the prices for the two products are the same, and the actual monetary value is randomly selected. The order of the choice sets and the order in which the two products are presented within each set are completely randomized.
The basics of this controlled experiment is that consumers have preferences. Do these preferences change depending on the price of the goods and the complementary goods? Someone with a strong preference for organic and non-GMO options will prefer the Simply product to the conventional one regardless of the price difference. On the other end of the spectrum, there are more price sensitive consumers. The people in the middle who purchase organic sometimes, depending on the price of the alternative, will be convinced one way or another depending on the prices and surpluses captured.
Saputo says, “I want to answer questions: Should efforts be focused on minimizing food waste where it is already the greatest? Or should they be directed toward encouraging biotechnology companies to create new GE varieties so that savings can be realized in the field or during transportation and storage?”
Saputo is also interested in learning about how information influences preferences within distinct income brackets. “Higher income segments of people, who have often achieved higher education levels, should presumably be able to better understand GE technology, and therefore be less averse to stigmatized GE foods,” she elaborates. “However, this is the group that is also buying organic and non-GMO options, so there’s a theoretical mismatch here.”
Saputo hopes to tease out some other confounding parameters that play a role in determining consumer behavior, such as the phenomenon of the halo effect around organic foods, which leads individuals to generalize about their relative health benefits. By studying these factors and understanding how people make decisions, Saputo hopes to identify the most promising strategies to achieve food security.