Understanding consumer acceptance

of genetically modified foods in Canada and beyond

Joelena Leader

David Zhang is an Associate Professor of Management and Marketing whose research focuses on marketing strategy, international marketing, and entrepreneurship. He has published his research articles in the Journal of Strategic Marketing, and International Journal of Knowledge Management.

In addition to academic research, Dr. Zhang has industry experience in both the public and private sectors. He was involved with the rural entrepreneurship projects sponsored by the Manitoba Department of Agriculture. He received a $35,000 grant from the Alliance for Food and Bioproduct Innovation to study marketing strategy for agri-businesses. His most recent research, joint funded by SSHRC and Genome Canada, examines consumer attitudes and purchase intentions of Genetically Modified (GM) foods and GM applications in the agri-food industry.

Research Context & Motivations

The focal point of Zhang’s research on GM is understanding how to satisfy stakeholders or consumers while also looking at the profitability or the financial/economic reason and motivation for introducing new innovations.

“Of all the studies I’ve done, the underlying theme is finding a win-win solution to satisfy multiple stakeholders or multiple objectives,” he commented. “On the one hand, you want to make your customers happy, and on the other hand you want to make a profit. How do you find a win-win solution to achieve that?”

In the context of GM foods, Zhang commented that innovations with gene identification and editing happen because they can do it. He suggested that “this is a bad place to start. It’s innovation or the sake of innovation.” Instead, he found it more valuable coming from the perspective of the consumer. “It really has to take the end consumers into consideration. It’s about who you are providing the services to,” he explained. In many cases, the industry benefits from GM, but rarely do the people who pay for GM (i.e. consumers) see an explicit return and tend to be hesitant according to Zhang.

Understanding how the industry can ensure they are delivering what the customers want without having to push sales is important. The motivation behind this work, as Zhang described, is to find “more consumer friendly innovations so that you can create something that is meaningful for the people who you provide the services to.”

Big Research Question

Zhang takes a unique approach to his work, combining consumer behavior and marketing strategy to understand what is going on in the mind of the consumer to deliver a marketing strategy that is more effective. “In my studies, it has always been taking the consumers as they focal point to understand how they react or how they feel, and what factors influence their perceptions,” he said.

According to Zhang, persuasion is difficult to navigate because consumers are educated and know that you are trying to make a buck off of them. Instead, focus should be on “creating something that they already wanted.” For Zhang, “it is really about changing the attitude of the innovation industry.”

The big question he is trying to answer is: How can we create innovation advances in GM foods that people actually want?

Although the topic of consumer benefits is part of the discussion in food sciences, there has been little effort in communicating the benefits to consumers. Zhang explained that “marketers, along with scientists and many stakeholders on the supply side really need to change their mindset around to focus on consumers and how we can package this information for them.”

Findings from Recent Research and Subsequent Work

Zhang and colleague Wilson studied the controversial topic of GM foods for human consumption and consumer attitudes in a recent 2018 article on The Marketing of Genetically Modified Food with Direct and Indirect Consumer Benefits: An Analysis of Willingness to Pay.

They found that consumers are willing to pay for food with added consumer benefits even if it was made by genetic modification. Consumers’ attitudes toward GM foods could be significantly improved if GM products had a direct benefit and relevance to them personally.

While GM foods is a controversial topic, Zhang felt that the negative willingness to pay for GM products is less a reflection of whether individuals are against GM, but instead “they are waiting to see some value in it for them.” Additionally, if the industry is increasing its profits through higher yields, that value should also be shared with the consumer. “You have to pass along the value created by innovation and technology to your consumers,” said Zhang.

Creating GM food products with consumer-focused value propositions such as increased health benefits and feeding the world are the key to gaining the needed support according to the authors. “Knowing that feeding the world in 2050 will require agriculture biotechnology, it is necessary to gain widespread support.” By changing the value proposition that suits consumer needs, from industry-centric to consumer-centric, may help to change the conversation and promote a positive association with GM foods.

Research Collaborations

A recent study in collaboration with Dr. Tang, a colleague and visiting scholar from China, involved a meta-analysis of GM foods looking at the past 20 years of study in China. “What we have found over the past 20 years was that more education means people will understand the issue more and the understanding of the subject matter is much better than 20 years ago,” said Zhang.

They found that “some attitudes were more tolerant than accepting, but the willingness to pay actually went down.” This finding is in direct contrast to all other meta-analyses that Zhang and his colleague have seen to date and was a unique finding. Their paper is currently under review.

Zhang also collaborated with Bob Huang, a M.Sc. student at Edwards, on the cultural influences on consumer attitudes towards GM foods. According to Zhang, “we have found that consumers generally consider self-interests first, regardless of their cultural values.”

“It’s the innovator who didn’t create a product that satisfied their needs,” he said.

Another recent collaboration is with Ali Abbasi, M.Sc. Marketing student on the topic of metaphors in marketing.

Zhang concluded that consumers’ attitudes toward GM foods are influenced by their perceptions of personal benefits, industry benefits, social benefits, and risks. Each of these collaborations feature studies that take on a new angle to address the important question of consumer attitudes and factors influencing perceptions of GM.

Research Impact on People in Society

“My hope for GMO, and this is my personal belief, is that we should move away from changing consumers’ minds to create products that the consumers really want. That’s my ultimate goal,” shared Zhang.

“Based on market orientation theory, at the developmental or beginning stage we already have the consumers in mind,” he said. Of course profit is a motive, but it is thinking about what the consumer really wants first. “In order to create better marketing strategies, you have to understand the consumers better.” This research could ultimately create mutual benefits for industry, people and society.

Acknowledgement: Research presented here is partially funded by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanity Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada – Genome Canada Special Initiative and Alliance of Food and Bioresources Innovation (AFBI).

To learn more about Dr. David Zhang’s work, check out his Profile Page!

Wilson, Grant A, David Di Zhang (2018) The Marketing of Genetically Modified Food with Direct and Indirect Consumer Benefits: An Analysis of Willingness to Pay. Journal of Commercial Biotechnology, 24(2), 27-39.

Tang and Zhang (2018, under review). The complexity of consumer attitudes toward genetically modified foods: Tracking the changes and regional differences in urban China.

Huang and Zhang (2018) Cultural influences on consumer attitudes toward GM foods, M.Sc. Thesis.

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