Consumers’ attitude towards microbial applications in food production

01 Oct 2020

Global food systems are currently characterised by unsustainable and unhealthy production and consumption practices. Most European consumers are worried about the impacts of chemicals present in food products on the environment (90%) and on their health (85%) (Eurobarometer, 2020). The use of synthetic chemicals in intensive crop farming causes environmental impacts through the release of pollutants to the air, soil and water. The resulting harmful chemical residues in food products also pose public health risks including lethal diseases like cancer. Subsequently, the European Commission through its “Farm to Fork Strategy” aims to reduce the use of fertilisers by at least 20%, and the use and risks of pesticides by 50% by 2030 (European Commission, 2020). The use of microorganisms, such as bacteria, microalgae and fungi, in crop farming is identified as a promising innovation for reducing chemical use, and the subsequent chemical residues in food products. Microorganisms can enhance the resistance of crops to biotic and abiotic stress, improve nutrient uptake, protect against diseases and pathogens, and enhance soil quality and health. Furthermore, microbial applications improve the nutrition content of food products through increasing micronutrients, antioxidants and several other health promoting compounds.

Although the uptake of innovations by farmers and other value chain actors has been improving the sustainability, safety and nutrients of food, consumer attitudes towards these innovations are not always positive. Furthermore, investing in new technologies (e.g. microbial applications) affects the competitiveness, profitability and survival of adopters. To make considered adoption decisions, it is therefore critical for farmers and other adopters to thoroughly understand consumer preferences and their willingness to pay (WTP) for sustainable and healthy food products that are produced using new technologies.

The challenges of mitigating and adapting to sustainable farming require a change in consumption behaviour. The willingness of consumers to buy new food products, with little or no consumption experience, depends on consumers’ Food Choice Motives (FCMs), and their personal and socio-demographic characteristics in addition to the attributes of the products. FCMs of consumers represent factors that influence an individual’s food choices, with a particular emphasis on promotion and prevention orientations. Psychological factors such as FCMs, attitude towards and knowledge of  the new technology, and individuals’ level of environmental and health concerns are underlying factors for explaining consumers’ heterogeneous preference and purchasing behaviour. Understanding the heterogeneity of consumers’ preference makes it possible  to characterise consumer profiles and identify consumer segments, which are essential in designing marketing strategies. Under WP7 of the SIMBA project, we elicited consumers’ WTP for microbial-based food products and estimated the effects of psychological as well as socio-demographic factors on their WTP for these novel food products.

We conducted online surveys in June and July 2020 for three food crops (wheat, potatoes and tomatoes) mainly in three countries (Germany, Italy and Netherlands). We are currently analysing data obtained from about 260 fully completed responses. Preliminary results show that about 77% of the respondents have a positive or very positive attitude towards microbial applications in food production, and most of them are willing to pay premiums for microbial-based food products. The amount of their WTP increases with the level of reductions in chemical use due to microbial influence. The preliminary results also indicate that promotion-oriented consumers are willing to pay more premiums for microbial-based food products, whereas prevention-oriented consumers are less likely to be willing to pay premiums. Other things being constant, environmentally concerned consumers are also more likely to be willing to pay premiums, whereas health concerned consumers are not.

The study contributes to a better understanding of consumers’ attitude and perceived risks towards food products obtained using microbial applications. It also provides insights about the factors that influence consumers’ WTP, which help to identify potential buyers of microbial-based food products, and for targeting consumers according to their WTP. The results will further be exploited in the overall sustainability assessment of the remaining tasks of WP7.

Written by Beshir Ali, Wageningen University & Research. For more information please contact: