THE AUSTRALIAN grains industry will have to factor in different attitudes towards genetically modified (GM) food crops in different export destinations according to an expert in value adding in food supply chains.
Alice Woodhead, a professor at the University of Southern Queensland, is the joint author of a report into Asian consumer attitudes towards GM food.
She said over the past 15 years attitudes had changed towards GM food in China, the world’s largest market for food.
“In 2002, studies showed there was good acceptance of GM food in Beijing, indeed it was found that some consumers would even pay a premium for it.
“In 2002, 73-80pc of people interviewed in Beijing said they would buy GM food,” Prof Woodhead said.
But she said there was little insight as to what GM technology actually meant at that time in China.
Further on, as consumers became more aware of what GM technology was and heard of the controversy surrounding its safety to humans raised in other studies these attitudes began to change.
By 2006 she said 60pc of customers were neutral or unwilling to buy GM product, with the tone of how questions were phrased having an impact on responses.
By 2015, large premiums had emerged for non-GM cooking oil, with organic oils up to five times the price of product made with GM oilseeds.
Even conventionally grown non-GM oils were significantly higher in price than GM product.
Prof Woodhead said she expected concerns around the safety of GM to continue in China.
“The Chinese are very concerned about food safety and they have a real interest in the provenance of their food.
“Down the track, traceability is going to become an increasingly important marketing tool for exporters selling into the Chinese market.
“The Chinese consumers like to be able to connect with their food and check back to see that the supply chain is all assured, that is very important to them.”
Prof Woodhead said the Australian supply chain would need to take note of this and look to improve its checking systems to meet demand from premium Chinese markets.
“There have been cases in China of counterfeited food brands and exporters will need to have a supply chain that allows Chinese consumers to feel comfortable they are getting the original product.”
However, she said the Australian grains industry should not necessarily fall into the trap of thinking other key markets had the exact same sentiments as China.
“Everyone talks about India and says it is like China 20 years ago.
“It is a similarly large market, but cultural attitudes are different in terms of food.
“Indian consumers like to think they are getting a bargain, it is a very different market to China, where many consumers like the prestige brands.”
“The Indian market is very price conscious and that may mean higher acceptance of GM food products if they present what is seen to be good value.”
“Each market has its own idiosyncrasies, the Thai people are obsessed by food and spend more per capita on food than any other nation, while in Japan it is all about quality, we need to identify specific consumer traits and target them, not just have a one size fits all policy.”
In terms of opportunities and challenges, Prof Woodhead said failings in the Chinese food supply chain and regulatory system could be exploited by Australia.
“Chinese consumers have so much distrust in their food, they have had the milk powder issue, there have been cases of meat being treated with colourings and surveys find they have little faith in their own food safety regulatory system.
“On the other hand, they do have faith in Australia as a clean and green supplier of food, which is an advantage.
“A case of GM contamination in exports to China would greatly undermine this trust, so we need to ensure our supply chains are robust.”
Large exporters have acknowledged the potential for non-GM supply chains to meet consumer demand.
Cargill recently found itself the centre of controversy in North America when it said was working with the Non-GMO Project, an organisation dedicated to building non-GM food supply chains.
The agribusiness giant said it was working on verifying the company’s food ingredients in response to community demand; however North American farmers, who produce large volumes of GM crops, along with the biotechnology sector spoke out against the move saying it disadvantaged producers of GM.
Other major grain processors in North America, such as Bunge, have also introduced non-GM supply chain certification in response to consumer demand.