In a review article published in Nature Food, researchers from the Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED) in Switzerland examine how heuristics and individual differences among consumers influence the acceptance of agri-food technologies. “Food consumption has never been as safe as it is today,” wrote lead researcher Michael Siegrist in an accompanying editorial. “At the same time, consumers and even some scholars are concerned about the risks associated with the use of technology for food production.”
The researchers reviewed the literature on consumer perceptions of novel food technologies—genetic technology (GT), nanotechnology, cultured meat, and food irradiation—related to the production, preparation, and storage of food. They noted that the term “novel” does not necessarily refer to the invention of a technology, but rather to its introduction into the market. For example, even though food irradiation was invented in the previous century, the researchers considered it a novel technology because in some countries it has only been introduced recently and irradiated foods are accepted in some countries but not in others.
According to the researchers, consumers often rely on simple cues or heuristics, such as the perceived naturalness of food technologies or feelings of disgust evoked by the unfamiliar, as well as trust in the food industry, because they lack technological knowledge. Several personality factors, including food technology neophobia or food disgust sensitivity, may explain individual differences in people’s attitudes toward food technologies.
The researchers found that generally, consumers’ reliance on the natural-is-better and the affect heuristics is one reason for their lack of acceptance of some novel food technologies. If a technology is viewed as unnatural, dreadful, and uncontrollable, and if people are not voluntarily exposed to it, its acceptance tends to be low. They noted that the factors that are most crucial for the lack of acceptance differ across food technologies.
“Progress toward a more sustainable, more secure, and safer food chain is difficult to envisage without novel food technologies,” wrote Siegrist. “Therefore, the general skepticism regarding technologies in the food domain will remain a challenge. In our literature review, we have presented factors that help explain why consumers often evaluate novel food technologies rather negatively.”