A new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), a nonprofit scientific organization, presents key findings from a new and growing area of research on public perceptions of and reactions to agrichemicals. The report reviews data from surveys of public perceptions of the risks of pesticides and animal drugs, studies of public perceptions of pesticide benefits and public willingness to pay for lowered pesticide residue level in food, and studies of public reaction to the introduction of animal drugs.
“Consumers have diverse views and preferences about agricultural chemical use,” said Eileen van Ravenswaay of Michigan State University, author of the report. “This diversity has important implications for public policy, marketing, and risk communication. Approximately one-fourth of the public perceives a great chance of harm from pesticide residues in food; approximately the same percentage perceives very little or no chance.”
The public perceives a range of health effects broader than the cancer risks typically addressed by the government: for example, some are concerned about allergies and nervous system disorders. Furthermore, concern regarding agrichemicals is not limited to food and food safety but extends to concerns about the environment and agricultural workers.
Trust in government and industry may be a more important influence on risk perception than the inherent safety or the danger of an agrichemical is. The majority of the public does not trust government to set or to enforce safety standards, or farmers to ensure that the foods they sell are safe.
The public generally believes that insects, diseases, and other pests need to be controlled but also believes that there are effective alternatives to pesticides. Because about half of the public does not believe that these alternatives are costlier, much of the public perceives little or no benefits from pesticide use.
“There is evidence that the public is willing to pay more for tougher pesticide residue standards and their intensified enforcement,” Dr. van Ravenswaay said. “Whether public willingness to pay can offset the cost of reducing or eliminating agrichemical use is unknown. In some cases, it may not be possible to produce acceptable foods without agrichemical use.”
Consumers differ greatly in terms of their reported willingness to purchase foods labeled pesticide free. Most say they are willing to pay 5% more for guarantees of reduced pesticide residues. About one-quarter to one-third are unwilling to pay more. Between 5% to 10% are willing to pay substantially more. Minor levels of pest damage are acceptable if consumers believe that pesticide residues are lower, but otherwise they are not.
The introductions of two new animal drugs, bovine somatotropin (BST) and porcine somatotropin (PST), have stimulated research on potential consumer reaction. Nationally, there are very low levels of consumer awareness of either BST or PST. Over a third say they do not know about the potential health risks. Many express skepticism about whether government ensures their safety in food. Thorough scientific scrutiny is important is gaining their trust. Benefits from the use of animal drugs such as lower prices and decreased fat content also affect public reaction.
“Benefits such as lower prices and decreased fat content are highly desired by consumers, but perceptions of these benefits may not offset perceptions of risks in all cases for all consumers,” according to Dr. van Ravenswaay.
The goal of research on public perceptions of agricultural chemicals is to assist government and industry in responding to consumer concerns, preferences, and information needs. This research is in its infancy, and more research is needed to develop valid and reliable measures of how the public perceives and reacts to agricultural technologies.
“Public Perceptions of Agrichemicals” was written by Dr. Eileen O. van Ravenswaay of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Michigan State University, East Lansing. Three additional scientists with expertise in agricultural and applied economics, plant pathology, public risk perception, and sociology served as credited reviewers.
“Public Perceptions of Agrichemicals” is available for $10.00 from CAST, 4420 West Lincoln Way, Ames, IA 50014-3447, (515) 292-2125. CAST identifies food and fiber, environmental, and other agricultural issues and interprets related scientific research information for legislators, regulators, and the media for use in public policy decision making. CAST is a nonprofit organization composed of 30 scientific societies and many individual, student, company, nonprofit, and associate society members.
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