Agricultural Sustainability: Consumer Survey

July 24, 2020

Global Survey Finds Consumers Are Optimistic & Open to New Solutions for Agricultural Sustainability

By Ralph Cummins

A survey we recently conducted on farming practices found that consumers remain remarkably optimistic about the future and are open to new ways to grow safe and healthy food sustainably.

It seems that everywhere you look these days, you are reminded of the negative legacy, unintended consequences, and limitations of our modern system of keeping people fed and healthy. Key water systems are polluted by agricultural run-off. Soil productivity is waning due to depleted nutrients. Bee colonies and other beneficial insects are dying due to overuse of neonicotinoid pesticides according to leading regulatory bodies. More people are experiencing life threatening illness due to long term exposure to agricultural chemicals. It is clear our current system is not sustainable.

GreenLight Biosciences was founded with the vision of solving some of the world’s most pressing issues by working with nature, not against it. Recently, we began work on a COVID-19 vaccine using mRNA and our innovative manufacturing capability.  From the beginning, we have believed we can help sustainably produce food without destroying our natural environment. We can innovate biological solutions to address problems that are fundamentally an issue of biology. Ultimately, our goal is to protect the health of our planet to ensure the health and welfare of its people. 

GreenLight’s first commercial development is for targeted biocontrol products that enable farmers to harvest crops safely and sustainably. So, we fielded the survey to better understand what people think about current problems with modern farming methods and their attitudes towards future solutions for agricultural production. More than 2,500 consumers were surveyed in four key countries – France, Germany, UK, and the US.  

Consumers in all four countries expect the food they buy will be sustainably produced. 76% of Europeans and 59% of Americans “require or prefer” foods that are natural or all natural and slightly less (71% and 49% respectively) feel their foods should be sustainably produced or farmed. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (74%) expressed worries about consuming GMO (genetically modified) foods, particularly in Europe. However, when asked about using genetically-altered products to combat destructive pests without harming the food or environment, they were much more receptive.  And the expectation of natural and more sustainable foods is even more important than “GMO-free” for most people.

How important are each of the following designations to you in selecting the foods you eat or prepare with your family?

Figure 1: Percentage of responses indicating ‘Required’ or ‘Preferred’

Not surprisingly, consumers have a very negative view of the continuing use of chemical pesticides in food production. In Europe, more than four out of five are either very or somewhat concerned about chemical residues on food, chemical residues in soil and water, and the impact on bees and other beneficial insects. Strong consumer sentiment against the use of traditional chemistry is reflected in recent EU bans on many pesticides. And US consumers, traditionally more tolerant of these practices, are not far behind with almost 80% of those surveyed expressing concern about these practices. Not surprisingly, when you look closer at the consumers that are very concerned, the impact of chemical pesticides on bees and beneficial insects jumps to the top of their worries. Clearly, consumers understand that if the bees go, we’ve got trouble

How concerned are you about the impact of these practices on the environment and/or the food you eat?

Despite this legacy, consumers are generally positive about the potential for new technologies, particularly biological solutions, to replace chemical products. When asked about the current class of emerging biological solutions, 70% of Europeans are favorable or interested to know more about these products. Even “bio-pesticides” are seen as positive by 60% of Europeans.  US consumers are slightly less likely to express positive interest primarily because a majority are unaware of these solutions. But clearly, a biological solution makes intuitive sense to consumers.

Figure 2A: Percentage of consumer survey responses indicating they are ‘Very Concerned’ or ‘Somewhat Concerned’
Figure 2B: Percentage of consumer survey responses indicating they are ‘Very Concerned’

What is your attitude toward new, biological practices that are now in use?

Finally, when asked about the use of RNA to target harmful insects and diseases, consumers in both the EU and the US are generally positive. In fact, the main reason consumers did not react positively was the lack of knowledge – obviously, because this is a new technology. Importantly, positive interest increases significantly in Europe and the US with the mention of a “targeted” product – the core benefit of RNA solutions which only work on the intended pest or disease.

Figure 3A: Percentage of consumer survey responses indicating they are ‘Supportive’ or ‘Interested to Know More’
Figure 3B: Percentage of responses indicating ‘Supportive’ or Interested to Know More’
Figure 3C: Responses interest levels in the use of RNA as a biocontrol product to protect plants against insects & diseases

The key learning from this survey is that while consumers on both side of the Atlantic remain wary of chemical products used in agriculture, they are optimistic and expect more from the industry in the future. And they are open and supportive of using biology – and RNA – to solve biological problems. What a novel concept!

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Learn more about how GreenLight Biosciences is enabling innovative technologies to protect the health of people and the planet. We are always looking to meet new partners, new colleagues or anyone interested to learn more about RNA.