Friday, May 20, 2011

Big brother doesn't understand you: the success of a GM food no-one wanted to buy,

Dr Peter Quaife’s illuminating food industry article: Big brother doesn't understand you: the success of a GM food no-one wanted to buy, indicates some of the ways in which a sales promotion was presented as a serious research project. For an indepth exploration of related issues see his PhD thesis. (1)

His account of the introduction of a genetically modified tomato purée for sale in some supermarkets (1996) shows data being manipulated to reflect the agenda of those who collect it, and their interpretation providing a false picture of the views of consumers. He recalls:

The launch was considered by those involved to be a success. Sales were unusually high for a new product, and demand outstripped supply. Clear labelling, information leaflets and the provision of non-genetically modified (GM) alternatives led to it being held up as an example of good practice by both industry and consumer groups. The way seemed clear for a gradual roll-out of more GM products to an eager public.

During a research interview ‘Brian’ explained that his company selected certain stores known to have price sensitive customers with a willingness to accept new technology – often in towns with a student population – and maximised sales during the test launch by selling the product cheaply as the supermarket’s 'own brand'.

‘Andrew’ said the suppliers of the product had been pressured into artificially reducing the price and that the goal of the launch was to gain acceptance for the technology

Information leaflets for customers emphasised the position of those in favour of the technology.

Quaife finds: “the sales data collected reflected not customer wants, but how much a particular group of customers could be persuaded to buy . . . On this basis, each can of conventional purée sold could be argued to represent a consumer who has decided to pay more to avoid the GM variety, whereas those who bought the GM version may be less likely to have made a judgement on the technology at all.”

The relative sales of conventional/modified purées were not discussed.

A Unilever sponsored study undertaken by Lancaster University (2) found:

powerful notions of inevitability and powerlessness influenced purchasing decisions, with the result that GM products could be bought by individuals opposed to the technology. These feelings of inevitability seemed to reflect a felt absence of choice and a sense that, realistically speaking, the technology was unstoppable. Such inevitability appeared to lie behind feelings of passive resignation in the majority of groups. (p53)

Dr Quaife concludes that the launch was promotional, but the sales figures collected were represented as research, leading to an inflated picture of the demand for GM food and points out the complexity of the issues raised by the first GM food to go on sale:

Not only does it represent a technology with the potential to revolutionise food production, impacts are probable on the environment, food security, control of food production (particularly by multinational corporations), world trade, democracy and humanity's relationship with the rest of nature.

An attempt to represent public perceptions of such complex issues purely through the use of sales figures is unlikely to yield useful results.

1. Quaife, P. (1999), Linkages Between Ecocentric Values and Action in Expert Discourse: The Case of Genetically Modified Food in the UK, PhD Thesis (forthcoming), Birmingham: The University of Aston in Birmingham.

Peter Quaife E-mail:
2. Grove-White, R. Macnaghten, P. Mayer, S. and Wynne, B. (1997), Uncertain World: Genetically Modified Organisms, Food and Public Attitudes in Britain, Lancaster: Lancaster

The whole article can be downloaded from

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