ACSPRI Conferences, RC33 Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology

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Consumers, Citizens and Food Choices - using stakeholder dialogue to inform investment and policy decisions for future food technologies

Virginia Baker, Karen Cronin, Gerald Midgley

Building: Law Building
Room: Breakout 8 - Law Building, Room 100
Date: 2012-07-10 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM
Last modified: 2012-06-19


The future frontiers of food production are more diverse than ever before, but markets for novel foods are volatile. GM foods? Functional foods? Nano-foods? Food scientists, producers and regulators all need better information to understand and predict the drivers for consumer and social acceptance of future foods.

This paper reports the findings from a four-year social research project designed to provide in-depth knowledge of the factors influencing social and market acceptance of food science and technology. Working with partners in the UK and the Netherlands, this New Zealand project explores international trends in food risk acceptance, and tests values and preferences across a range of future food technologies by using stakeholder dialogue.

Understanding the social, market and geo-political context is vital for determining viable investment decisions and innovation pathways for food technology. Polarised public opinion around genetic engineering has featured in food debates in many countries, with many questions remaining: Will concerns about GM foods cause resistance to other new food technologies? What attributes of future food technologies lead to acceptance? How are consumer responses influenced by social values?

In the “Coming to the Table” Future Foods project, social researchers are working alongside biophysical scientists to explore how social and market ‘intelligence’ can better inform science investments. This multi-methodological project involves: analysis of New Zealand and international consumer and public opinion studies; future-watch scanning to identify food science and technology trends; upstream stakeholder engagement using dialogue; and systems methods to integrate dialogue outcomes with investment strategy.

Our findings to date suggest that public judgements about novel foods are increasingly nuanced: acceptance is highly dependent on the purpose, ethical implications, and risks and benefits of any particular application. Acceptance is also influenced by stakeholder interests and identities, variously as ‘scientists’ or ‘consumers’ or ‘citizens’. Dialogue communication enabling participants to engage across these primary identity positions can be productive in generating new understandings and finding common ground.

We suggest that a ‘citizen-oriented’ approach to stakeholder engagement will uncover underlying social values; whereas traditional ‘consumer-oriented’ approaches focus on experimental models using immediate and habitual stimuli (price, product, place). Understanding the interplay of both ‘citizen’ and ‘consumer’ approaches is necessary to generate more accurate predictive data on food choices and behaviour. Cross disciplinary approaches provide a strong framework to explore the nuances of consumer decision-making in a social context, and may therefore provide more comprehensive information on market and social acceptability to inform science investment strategy and policy.