Nutrition and Food Science

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Nutrition and Food Science

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East versus West: acceptance of GM foods by European and Asian consumers

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NFS-10-2015-0121 Original Article

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Manuscript Type:

Nutrition and Food Science

Keywords:

GM foods, Consumer acceptance, Cultural differences, Government policies, Hofstede, Global food-trade

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East versus West: acceptance of GM foods by European and Asian consumers

Introduction

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The genetically modified crops are a promising development of the science addressing urgent global issues, in the sense that they present the potential to deliver higher yielding foods in a sustainable manner. Genetically Modified (GM) foods envision to exhibit potential benefits (McLean, 2012) through its: (i) agricultural productivity, increased diseases and drought

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tolerant varieties which mitigate harvest failure; (ii) higher yield (food) with lesser utilisation of land, water and other natural resources; (iii) decreased need for artificial fertilisers; (iv)

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extended shelf-life of perishables, reducing food wastage; (v) elimination of food allergens; and (vi) improvement of nutritional quality, e.g., golden rice.

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The emergence of GM foods called a diverse set of policy reactions to the introduction of GM

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foods into the market. Because of its nature of existence, several concerns hover around GM foods (Frewer et al., 2004). Concerns over profound dependency of the farmers on private

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organisations for seeds (hybrid and GM crops do not produce genetically viable seeds) and environmental and food safety are among others. It is also argued that GM foods can affect

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environment (McLean, 2012) because of: (i) the probable ‘escape’ of new gene into other species’ and development of e.g., herbicide-resistant gene; (ii) the ability to compete with wild

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breed thus threatening biodiversity of the latter; (iii) the unpredictable risk for birds, insects and other species; and (iv) the potential allergen development, for instance the transfer of fatal

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allergenic Brazilian-nut gene into soya bean. Such concerns about GM foods have taken different dimensions and extremes among population and activists within and across nations.

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Several EU nations like Germany, France, Austria, Greece, and Luxembourg do not permit the cultivation of GM crops while Poland even restricts marketing of GM foods. Such actions

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potentially affect global trade (imports and exports) of (GM) foods. International agri-food trade policies on biotechnology and GM foods affect mainly importers and exporters of developing countries. Restrictions on GM foods indicate that developing countries have to

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Nutrition and Food Science

compete with developed countries, whose consumers exhibit scepticism in adopting and accepting GM foods. Public acceptance of GM foods has been quite different across nations. For instance, US over EU citizens are easier in accepting GM foods. EU government policies are stringent. Goyal and

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Gurtoo ( 2011) summarised that European countries have an overall negative attitude towards GM foods and that most developing countries are welcoming scientific innovation such as genetic engineering, to feed the growing population and demands though are sceptical on the safety issues. While GM foods are presented as the only potential solutions by some, several

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others report GM foods as a part of the solution for an array of urgent global problem (Frewer et al., 2004, Conner et al., 2003, Schrope, 2001).

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The governments have to make commercially and economically pragmatic decisions in the

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coming years on GM foods and its introduction into the market – imports and exports. These decisions are rather vital and critical considering the exponential growth of the global food and

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nutrition security concerns. This concern would especially holds true for poorer nations where malnourishment is one of the major issue (Schrope, 2001) and GM crops present themselves as

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a potential solution. On the one hand, introduction of GM foods requires updating systems such as farming, food supply and distribution, consumer awareness programme, and seed

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reservoir at the national storages by the farmers. On the other hand, introduction of GM foods without public acceptance can create massive public outrage.

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With growing global trade and increased stretch of food supply & distribution channels across nations, an understanding on acceptance and attitude towards GM foods by consumers is vital

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for governments to draft agri-food trade policies. Consumer attitude towards GM foods is therefore an important factor to authorize (or restrict) its development, production, supply and

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(international) trade. This information in turn is necessary to assess needs, cost-benefit analysis in production and supply of GM foods and in strategizing marketing channels at domestic and

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international trade and thus segregating consumer markets. For this, this viewpoint paper aims to identify the factors that determine the differences in acceptance of GM foods between Europeans and Asians consumers.

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Acceptance of GM foods by Europeans In Europe, consumer acceptance of commercial gene technology products seems further away than ever. Consumer believe that GM foods are risky (Gaskell et al., 2000), are with unknown risk (Siegrist, 2008), are not useful and therefore should not be encourage (Gaskell et al., 2000)

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is common. European consumers are far less willing to consumer beef from cattle fed on GM crops (Lusk et al., 2003). A study on Eastern Europeans’ preferences showed that these consumers are generally against the consumption of GM foods and risk perception has lowered their purchase-decision of GM foods (Curtis and Moeltner, 2007).

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Acceptance of GM foods by Asians

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Most developing countries encourage scientific development and innovation. Thus, the genetic modification of foods has also received positive support, at least in the stage of research and

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development. Biotechnological research and applications is recognised as a tool to address the development of nation yet prioritising the safety of the population (Goyal and Gurtoo, 2011).

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Thus, GM foods controversy among Asians is rather limited. However few Asian societies such

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as India, though has shown openness in accepting GM foods, few consumer groups do consider genetic modification as an act ‘against god’ or ‘against the nature’ and ‘with an unknown risk’. Several public demonstration were held against GM foods in Japan because of a range of

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concerns from unknown ecological impact and from uncertain risk (Yamaguchi and Suda, 2010). However, majority of the Asian societies and consumers are willing to purchase GM foods when

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there is an associated benefit, to the extent that sometimes they are even ready to pay higher for a better quality product. Koreans showed strong fear against GM foods but when promised

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with benefits, are more willing to try GM foods (Hallman, et al 2005). Ceteris paribus, when GM and non-GM foods are comparable in price, Indians (especially middleclass households) chose

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to consume GM foods, e.g., golden rice or edible oil. The lower antagonism among the Asian societies towards GM foods can partly be explained by the fact that the vast majority of the

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consumers who are unaware of the latest biotechnological advancements and the concept of GM foods.

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Factors determining the acceptance of GM foods across cultures Attitudes and believes towards risks and benefits influence consumers’ approval of GM foods (Sjöberg, 2004). But these attributes are deeply and culturally embedded, which are hard to change (Bredahl, 2001), creating cross-cultural differences (Hebden et al., 2005). A thoroughly

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literature review was done to identify all factors that determine the difference in acceptance of GM foods between Europeans and Asians. Knowledge and trust in scientists and institutions carrying research

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Knowledge and trust on an institution occurs over a period of time. Usually trust is an outcome of life course, as explained by Furst (1996). This experience provides orientation to past,

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present and future course of actions including decisions. Trust on the GM research conducting institutions and knowledge about GM foods is a key factor determining acceptance of GM foods

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by Europeans. It was argued that institutes whose shared values reflect to that of people’s cultural values is highly trusted (Earle et al., 1998). Siegrist (1999) using causal model expressed

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that trust influences perception of benefit and risk of a new technology, which in turn

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influences the acceptance of technology (Figure 1).

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A study showed that when knowledge on GM foods was shared with UK consumers, trust on institutions involved in research and development of GM foods was increased. Further,

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transparency and openness of R&D outcomes to public scrutiny created trust and eased consumers’ decision-making process regarding GM foods (Frewer et al., 2004). A strong positive correlation was found between trust and positive evaluation of agricultural biotechnology

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among Swiss students (Siegrist, 1999). And the contrast, that is, lack of trust on the institute

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was positively correlated to opposition of GM foods (Hoban et al., 1992). A study in Spain and UK showed that consumers may accept GM foods when detailed information was provided.

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This study also suggested that the information from mass and social media was trusted over consumer organisations (Vilella-Vila et al., 2005). However Northern Europeans, particularly Norway, trust consumer and environment groups than academia and R&D institutes regarding GM foods (Zechendorf, 1999). In case of Asians, this trust factor was not very predominant

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though offered a contrast to Europeans. Most Europeans often fetch fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy products from the local farms. They associate the local food to be organic, fresh, healthy, fair trade, and so on. They prefer for such local foods irrespective of cost burden. Such farms are often known locally or associated with familiar people (acquaintance over period of

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time) or have a good review from the locals and neighbours. Personal relations are priorities among the European family and are given utmost importance. And such relations hold on the basis of trust. This can therefore be one of the reasons for not preferring ‘unnatural’ GM foods. Given most Asian consumers are unaware of the agricultural biotechnological advancements in

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terms of the introduction of GM foods (Deodhar et al., 2008), the role of trust and knowledge in acceptance of GM foods is mainly negligible or there is a lack of information from these countries.

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Media plays a role in providing consumer with information on agricultural biotechnology (Mcinerney et al., 2004). Media is considered reliable and a positive critique of the government

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in the European countries. Ever since the mad cow disease in the UK, media has taken a firm position in presenting neutral information for the consumers on GM foods. Media also took

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role in telecasting programmes that educate and update consumers on latest advancements including GM foods. Again, in Asian countries, consumers are least aware of labels such as GM

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foods (Hallman et al., 2004). Though media is independent, mostly trustworthy, and strong and a positive critique of the government in countries like India, media hardly takes role and

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position in educating consumers in aspects like GM foods at least to create awareness about the existence of GM foods and the controversies surrounding across the world. Uncertainty avoidance and health

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Uncertainty avoidance in the context of GM foods relies on avoiding any unanticipated unknown risks on consumption of foods whose gene has been modified. Uncertain or unknown

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risk is a vague term which is hard to identify and define. Unforeseen incidences like the transfer of new allergen from Brazilian-nut to soy bean can potentially cost life. Further, the threat to plant, animal and insect biodiversity is also unforeseen.

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The perception of ‘unknown risk’ associated with GM foods creates an uncertainty among consumers. Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions scores Europeans (e.g., Germany (#65) and France (#86)) higher in uncertainty avoidance index against e.g., India (#40) and Indonesia (#48). When future is ambiguous with great anxiety, most Europeans tend to avoid such uncertainty,

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and so GM foods. While an emerging market like India and several other Asian countries, look for enough resources to support their expanding population’s needs. A study conducted on consumers in Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy showed relation between GM foods and unnaturalness and low trustworthiness, irrespective of the

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amount of GM material in the final product (Bredahl, 1999). Another study showed that European Union consumers have a low tolerance for uncertainty and thus for GM foods while

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Indian consumers showed rather high tolerance to uncertainty and trust (Wohlers, 2010). Asian consumers confronting insufficient availability and lack of high quality food are usually GM food

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protagonists. In spite of informing students about the possible uncertain risk involved with GM

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foods, they were willing to buy GM foods (De Steur et al., 2010, Deodhar et al., 2008). Gender difference and risk perception

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Gender differences unequivocally influences food choices and associated decisions. Gender plays a crucial role in differentiating attitudes, values and behaviour towards new technology.

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Women are often protective in choosing food products for their household. Hofstede model places European countries like Spain (#42) and France (#43) in masculinity against India (#56)

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and Philippines (#64). While both man and woman mostly share equal responsibility of the household in the western cultures, research has shown that western women like Asian woman

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are protective in terms of ‘safe’ choices for themselves and their family members. Women over men are reported to be more wary about risk perception of GM foods (Davidson and

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Freudenburg, 1996). GM foods were considered immoral and thus conflict with individual and social values (Bredahl, 1999). Women, often the care takers of the household and a nurturer of

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the family, associate GM foods with ‘unknown’ risk and thus avoid them. Women also tend to express the ‘sense of bioethics’ wherein they express the potential risk to environment or nature because of the biotechnological applications (Davidson and Freudenburg, 1996, Tanaka, 2004). Men (specifically ‘white’) over women were reported to trust institutions and

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government more and therefore GM foods which is an implication of government policy (Flynn et al., 1994, Siegrist, 1998). Risk perception and material benefits Risk perception in general should lead to rejection of a new food. However, in some contexts,

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where there is a ‘material’ benefits, people tend to forgo their risk perception and accept the food. Therefore risk perception and material benefits play contradictory roles to some extent in terms of GM foods. With material benefit, people tend to ignore risk perception they hold against GM foods. Monetary issue is the main facet of material benefits. A study in Romania

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showed that, like western Europeans, these consumers are generally against the consumption of GM foods for their probable risk association. However, a lower income household if provided

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with positive or beneficiary product attributes (e.g., health, environmental, economic) do

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consider GM foods positively (Curtis and Moeltner, 2007). It is reported that EU consumers reject GM foods not because of risk perception but because they do not offer tangible benefits

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on consumption (Siegrist, 2008). Arvanitoyannis & Krystallis (2005) found similar results on benefits and acceptance of GM foods among Greek consumers. When the quality of GM foods

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is superior, for instance, tomatoes rich in flavour and nutritional value, consumers were ready to buy them to the extent that they could pay more in spite of being bothered by food safety

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issues (Loureiro and Bugbee, 2005). The New Zealand consumers were ready to buy GM cherries when sold at market price or lower (Knight et al., 2005).

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Indian consumer were ready to buy GM foods when was available at lower price and can even pay more when the quality attributes improve compared to the tradition food (Deodhar et al.,

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2008). Koreans showed strong fear against GM foods but when promised with benefits such as decreased price or increased quality, are willing to try GM foods (Hallman, et al 2005). Chinese

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consumers were generally willing (62%) to accept GM rice when it is higher in folic acid which contribute for the salubrious growth of foetus (De Steur et al., 2010).

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Food for survival The central dogma of acceptance of GM foods by Europeans and Asians commences by comparing basic demand from food by citizens of developed and developing/underdeveloped

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countries. Citizens of developed countries like in Europe have abundant food supply and thus demand food which is fresh and healthy; and even extend their choices for food labels such as organic, fair-trade, functional foods, GM-free and so on. Therefore, debate on food choices for instance, in terms of organic foods or ‘freshness’ or functional foods, is a luxury for citizens of

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developed countries. In contrast, citizens of developing and underdeveloped nations like most Asian countries have a different demand from food. Choices the poor from these nations have is either to starve and ultimately die or to be fed and therefore they seldom debate on quality or source of food production.

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Given the growing food security issues in developing and underdeveloped countries, GM foods unequivocally offer a potential solution. Remote rural population can: use their limited local

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agricultural resources to yield similar or higher yields (e.g., use less water or fertilisers and still produce comparable or higher yield); can transport the perishables to wholesales when the

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yield has higher shelf-life; access foods rich in specific nutrients irrespective of socio-economic

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strata, e.g., golden rice rich in beta-carotenes. In contrast, where choice of food is plenty in developed nations, protest against or rejection of GM foods sounds rather as a luxury. Concluding remarks and implications

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Contemporary business is rather global. Food imports and exports are expanding beyond

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borders. Governments are striving to meet the increasing domestic and international food and consumer demands. Genetically Modified (GM) food is one of the sensitive issues any country is

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facing these days while also being a potential solution among others to mitigate urgent global problems. Decision by the governments on GM foods should be based on factors respecting

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consumer shared values. This viewpoint paper identified and comprehensively elucidated five factors that determine the difference in consumer acceptance of GM foods between Europeans

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and Asians. This information offers governments information in drafting international agri-food trade policies and for producers in targeting and strategizing (niche) markets.

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Acknowledgement: The author would like to declare that no funding sources are involved in conducting this research.

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Conner, A. J., Glare, T. R. and Nap, J.-P.2003. The release of genetically modified crops into the environment. The Plant Journal. 33(1), pp. 19-46.

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Curtis, K. R. and Moeltner, K.2007. The effect of consumer risk perceptions on the propensity to purchase genetically modified foods in Romania. Agribusiness. 23(2), pp. 263-278.

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Davidson, D. J. and Freudenburg, W. R.1996. Gender and Environmental Risk Concerns: A Review and Analysis of Available Research. Environment and Behavior. 28(3), pp. 302339.

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Wohlers, A. E.2010. Regulating genetically modified food. Politics & the Life Sciences. 29(2), pp. 17-39. Yamaguchi, T. and Suda, F.2010. Changing social order and the quest for justification: GMO controversies in Japan. Science, Technology & Human Values. 35(3), pp. 382-407. Zechendorf, B.1999. Agricultural Biotechnology: Why Do Europeans Have Difficulty Accepting It? AgBioForum. 1(1), pp.

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East versus West: acceptance of GM foods by European and Asian consumers

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Perceived benefit

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Trust in institution

Acceptance of biotechnology

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Perceived risk

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Figure 1 Causal model of acceptance of gene technology. Adapted from Siegrist (1999)

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