Daily Consumption in Risk Society: the Case of Genetically Modified Food

ABSTRACT - Drawing on Beck’s (1992) theory of the 'risk society’, this paper discusses consumer feelings and attitudes shaped by the debate and considerable public skepticism and resistance towards genetically modified products. In ur study, Danish and Swedish consumers have been interviewed in order to find out how they relate to genetically modified food. Focus groups were conducted with ordinary eaters, environmentalists, and vegetarians in both countries. Our analysis is structured by Warde’s (1997) antinomies of taste in food trends; novelty versus tradition, health versus indulgence, economy versus extravagance, and convenience versus care. Various themes emerging from the data are evoked, and it is concluded that the case of GMO is an excellent example of some of the trait aspects of living in a risk society.


Karin M. Ekstrom and Soren Askegaard (2000) ,"Daily Consumption in Risk Society: the Case of Genetically Modified Food", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 237-243.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000      Pages 237-243


Karin M. Ekstrom, Goteborg University

Soren Askegaard, SDU Odense University & Lund University

[The authors thank the reviewers for their helpful comments. Karin M. Ekstrom wishes to thank Nils-Eric Svensson's fund at the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation and Jan Wallander's och Tom Hedelius' Research Foundation for support of this project.]

"In case of doubt, please protect toxins from the dangerous interference of human beings"

(Ulrich Beck, 1992, p. 66)


Drawing on Beck’s (1992) theory of the 'risk society’, this paper discusses consumer feelings and attitudes shaped by the debate and considerable public skepticism and resistance towards genetically modified products. In ur study, Danish and Swedish consumers have been interviewed in order to find out how they relate to genetically modified food. Focus groups were conducted with ordinary eaters, environmentalists, and vegetarians in both countries. Our analysis is structured by Warde’s (1997) antinomies of taste in food trends; novelty versus tradition, health versus indulgence, economy versus extravagance, and convenience versus care. Various themes emerging from the data are evoked, and it is concluded that the case of GMO is an excellent example of some of the trait aspects of living in a risk society.


In an era of internationalization and global exchange of communications and commodities, food culture is often seen as a domain of increasingly transnational character. No doubt, a number of tendencies towards internationalization can be found. On the other hand, there is substantial evidence from several sources that food culture is one of the domains that changes most slowly among immigrant groups (cf. Fischler 1990, Mennell et al. 1992). Other studies (e.g., Askegaard & Madsen, 1998) have underlined the continued importance of national borders in the profiling of European food cultures. This is to a large extent due to the central role of food in many basic social rituals and communicational patterns within families and other groups. Food products are markers helping to define social situations. It is a category in which we all, based on our own criteria, are capable of quickly judging various products, and the way they are cooked and presented as familiar or strange. It is a product category where very strong habits and preferences are often found. One can therefore speak about a basic inertia of food culture or a relative stability that characterizes eating patterns in different societies which continue to play a role in defining what to eat and with what, how it is to be cooked, when it is to be eaten and under what social circumstances.

The subject of food has grown in importance within the field of sociology during the last decade. One major contributor to the development of a sociological account for changes in food consumption patterns is Warde (1997). He presents four different tendencies in the changing food culture of today, based on a 2x2 matrix accounting for differences in degree of informalization or stylization and individualization or social determinism (called 'communification’) in the food culture. The highly individualized and highly stylized tendency he calls niche specialization, which refers to what would be the introduction of a variety of highly fragmented but still distinct and defined styles of consumption, such as vegetarianism, dieting, "gourmetism", exoticism, etc. With the stylized but more communitarian trend, Warde refers to the "persistence of social differentiation", much in line with Bourdieu’s (1979) work on social distinctions. Here, food continues to beBand in some cases becomes more and moreBa class and status marker; a trend highly visible in the Anglo-Saxon world where food traditionally was less inscribed in a social, classificatory practice than in France (Warde, 1997). We might add, that from our personal experiences, this seems to also be the case in Scandinavia.

The communitarian and informal trends reflect the massification of food consumption, the global trends of middle class acceptance of fast food, of convenience products, of the increasing control of the world market by still fewer corporations extending the range of their brands to all corners of the world, in short the reflection in the food culture of what Ritzer (1993) describes as the "McDonaldization of Society". Finally, the highly individualized and highly informal trend in food consumption refers, then, to tendencies of "gastroanomy" (cf. Fischler, 1990), to dissolutions of standards and norms and the absence of any seure foundation on which to build rules of food culture.

In this turbulent environment, a new discussion is emerging concerning future food consumption: the acceptability or non-acceptability of genetically modified food, a.k.a. genetically modified organisms (GMO). Such products are increasingly being marketed in the international market, and has spawned fundamental discussions, for example between the U.S. and Canada on one side and the European Union on the other. The conflicting opinions between the European Union and the U.S. concern the openness of the European market for such products, questions of obligatory labeling, etc. Thus, a social debate has been going on in several European countries, concerning GMOs in food products. This debate has shown a considerable public scepticism and resistance towards GMO products, but also a degree of acceptance. In our two sample countries, the debate is older and has drawn more attention in Denmark than in Sweden. We believe this to be reflected in our results, a point to which we shall return. The debate has mainly been based on a discussion of various kinds of environmental and other risk issues, but also moral and ethical viewpoints have been aired. Thus, a study of consumers’ relationship to GMO products must necessarily be based on a conceptualisation of the risk involved. In this respect, we turn to Beck’s (1992) theory of risk society.


One of the most interesting theses on the social conditions of the late 20th century is the idea proposed by Beck (1992) that we are living in what he calls a 'risk society’. Beck suggests that whereas industrial society has produced an enormous amount of goods and a society of material affluence, it has also produced new risks and new dangers. These modern risks are the unwanted byproduct of modern capitalism and industrialism. And his central thesis is that "the gain in power from techno-economic 'progress’ is being increasingly overshadowed by the production of risks" (Beck, 1992, p. 13). Radioactivity, environmental degradation and destruction, global warming, and increased amounts of toxins and pollutants in our daily environment are but a few of the risks facing the citizens of all modern, developed and developing, societies. The role of science in the context of the risk society is ambiguous. On the one hand, scientific and technological developments are the sources of many of the new chemical-, climatic-, and medical threats that we encounter in our daily consumer lives. On the other hand, scientific methods are the only tools with which we can assess dangerous levels of pesticides in the drinkingwater, the degradation of the ozone layer, and so on, since many of the risks escape perception. The risks are, as Beck says, "changed, magnified, dramatized or minimized within knowledge" and, consequently, "the mass media and the scientific and the legal professions in charge of defining risks become key social and political positions" (Beck, 1992, p. 23)

Intensive production methods have in and by themselves engendered a significant proportion of the new risks, ranging from environmental damage to risks of catching BSE ("mad cow’s disease"). One of the major discussions in the past few years has pertained to the introduction of genetically modified foods on the international markets. Scientists, consumers and consumer organizations, producers and governments have argued back and forth on the benefits and risks attached to the genetically modified food products.

The discrepancy between technical manageability and quantifiable risks and the public’s orientation towards catastrophic potential in this domain is revelatory of the discrepancy but also the interdependency between scientific and social rationality described by Beck. In short, scientific rationality maintains that the risks are minimal and manageable, whereas the social ratioality refers to a political and moral choice of not wanting to live with whatever small risk there is. The technological argument is often that genetic modifications are necessary if we want to be able to feed the growing world population B as Beck says, "the devil of hunger is fought with the Beelzebub of multiplying risks [] The tangibility of need suppresses the perception of risks" (Beck, 1992, p.43;45). Beck is, thus, very critical of science and he rejects a standard viewpoint of a technological elite: that the public would react differently, i.e., more positively if they had the objective knowledge of the experts. However, as the debate shows, science does not agree on these matters, nor does the public in general necessarily feel victimized and threatened by Beck’s risks. Our purpose here is exactly to explore differences across two countries and among different sub-populations about how people relate to the alleged risks of genetically modified foodstuffs.


According to Beck, many of the new social movements have been formed as reactions to the new risk situations. This may be equally true in the food area, where various groups reflecting Warde’s concept of niche specialization (e.g., vegetarians) are reacting against the techno-economic logic. Thus, we would for instance expect vegetarians to be heavily engaged in a resistance against genetically modified food, even though gene technology might be very beneficial to vegetarians in terms of possibilities of securing a sufficiently high protein content in the daily nutrition.

Warde (1997) discusses four antinomies of taste organizing the food trends in Britian as reflected in magazine articles towards the end of the 20th century: novelty vs. tradition, health vs. indulgence, economy vs extravagance, and convenience vs. care. Although these are based on analyses predominantly of the British market, we still believe that they are applicable to throw some light on our problem of the various stances towards GMO.

Novelty expresses the search for unfamiliar, exotic and innovative foods, whereas tradition expresses the orientation towards well-tried practices and conventions. This is enacted in fascination with whatever is inscribed in long traditions and the search for authenticity, be it foreign or domestic. Here we would expect the informants more open to GMO’s to be more novelty-oriented than those opposing the introduction of GMO products. The health tendency expresses a preoccupation with "the good diet", which is not necessarily congruent with what is prescribed by doctors and scientists. In fact, health translates into either what is seen as a medically "correct" life style or into what is seen as mentally sound. Thus, it becomes very difficult to pre-establish a connection between these trends and the attitudes towards GMO. On the one hand, health may be translated into a consciousness of the risks of industrially manipulated foods, on the other hand, a certain number of people accept the scientific and medical arguments about the minimal risks of GMO’s. In a similar vein, indulgence translates into to both a preoccupation with the quality and purity of the food products (contra GMO), but also with the idea of "naughty but nice," the transgression of some of the many "oughts" in the roles and norms. So the pleasures of indulgence might work as an endorser for GMOs but also as a hindrance to their acceptance.

In terms of economy vs. extravagance, we agree with Beck that "a sufficiently well-filled wallet puts one in a position to dine on eggs from 'contented hens’ and salads from 'pampered heads of lettuce’" (1992, p. 35). Thus, the more inspired one is by the idea of economizing, the bigger the incitement to accept new production methods providing the consumers with what is seen as better product value with more positive attributes than standard products. On the other hand, those whose orientations are moreextravagant and less economical will, in our opinion, be more prone to hold a negative attitude towards GMOs. This would be a reflection of what Beck (1992, p. 29f.) calls "social rationality", but also a reflection of Warde’s idea of collective distinction, whereby "pure and clean" food products become a new social marker for the classes of high cultural and economic capital. Convenience expresses tendencies towards "speed of preparation, simplicity in cooking and ease of storage" (Warde, 1997, p. 133). Thus, GMO’s would presumably be highly welcomed by convenience-oriented people, especially because of the products’ potential for longer durability. Care, on the other hand, is expressing first and foremost care for the family. Slightly enlarged this would include a thought for the living conditions of future generations and might thus inspire either a negative attitude towards GMOs, based on a social rationality. Care, in this sence, becomes a generalized care for people, environment, etc. This humanistic attitude does not fit very well with the techno-economic rationality of the scientific and commercial environments promoting GMOs.

To conclude, we expect to see a systemic interdependence between demand for cheap and convenient food products and the production of risks. The question, then, is: how do various groups of consumers in Denmark and Sweden make the trade-off between the advantages and risks involved in the introduction of GMO products in the market? How do the various tendencies in the food market proposed by Warde relate to the attitudes towards GMO products? And which, if any, basic differences can be found across the national border of Denmark and Sweden?


Although we do not consider this a comparative study, data were gathered in both Denmark and Sweden. Since the GMO debate is a vivid and public one in both countries, such an issue is always very dependent on the way it is treated in the media. The reactions to GMO, we induce, are thus potentially highly dependent on the daily news scene in each country. In order to try to avoid such short term national media dependency and to get a more ample understanding of consumers’ meaning of GMO, interviews were made in both Denmark and Sweden. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the GMO debate has been going on for a longer time and been more intense in Denmark than in Sweden. Thus, we found it interesting to cover both countries in the study.

Thompson, Pollio, and Locander (1994) emphasized the importance of identifying cultural meanings which are shared and underlie individual consumers’ understanding. In this line, we take an interpretive approach in order to explore meanings related to genetically modified food products. In order to cover a variety of meanings pertaining to as well as different orientations towards GMO, people representing three different 'food styles’ were interviewed in Denmark and in Sweden: 'ordinary’ (meat) eaters (DO, SO), environmentalists (DE,SE), and vegetarians (DV,SV). Focus groups were conducted in both countries. Focus groups were selected as research method for several reasons. First of all, in order to find how people relate to GMO food and the meaning of this relatively new technology, focus groups provide in-depth information which might be difficult for people to communicate in other ways. Second, focus groups are beneficial to use when trying to understand how groups as such relate to GMO and how they form prejudice and stereotypes. The groups in themselves can be viewed as reflecting a social construction of a "mini reality" in that personal opinions and feelings are confronted with a set of collective norms and values, and reinforced or challenged. The so-called 'group bias’, reflecting the influence of social interaction on the formation of attitudes and feelings is thus seen as a strength in contexts such as ours, where the social construction of life styls is at issue (Askegaard 1993).

The study was carried out in the spring of 1998 in two major cities in Sweden and Denmark. All the three Danish groups as well as the Swedish vegetarian group consisted of five persons each. The Swedish ordinary eater group and the environmentalist group consisted of four people each. The interviews varied in duration from 1,5 hours to nearly 5 hours. One major difference was in terms of age: The Swedish informants were generally younger than the Danish. The most important consequence hereof was that the 'ordinary’ eaters in Sweden averaged 18 years of age (vs. 22 in Denmark), still lived at home with their parents while the Danish ordinary eaters lived on their own. A similar difference was the case for the vegetarians were on average ( average age: 19 in Sweden, 26 in Denmark). Finally, the Danish environmentalists were all meat eaters, while all but one person among the Swedish environmentalists were vegetarians. Consequently, the groups are not directly comparable, but as already mentioned, are meant to cover a selection of aspects and life situations potentially relevant for the attitude towards GMO. Again, we emphasize that our study is exploratory and contextual among the three groups interviewed in the two countries respectively. The results should therefore not be generalized to the whole population, but rather express a universe of meanings pertaining to GMO food.


Novelty versus tradition

An orientation towards novelty was only expressed by the Danish ordinary eaters, who emphasized that scientific progress was important.

Interviewer: What is the purpose of manipulating genetically?

a: "When it comes to animals, it has to do with curiosity. How far can we go, what can we achieve? Can we achieve some kind of perfection of an imagination of how some animal should be?" (DO)

Interviewer: What do you think of this?

a: "Actually, I have no opinion about this. I think it is a very good idea to try it out" (DO)

b: "I also find it quite interesting. Instead of just letting things be as they are. Then we will never get anywhere" (DO).

All the other groups interviewed showed an orientation towards tradition. The Swedish environmentalists said that this is a too young technology, which is too far away from the traditional breeding of plants and as a result we are loosing control in that the genes might spread to wild growing relatives. The fact that a concern for the earth is necessary for mankind to survive in the future was expressed by the Danish vegetarians:

"Well, I want back to nature. I want back to the basic idea that we are here and we have to take care of the environment and our society. The thought of unity" (DV).

The Swedish environmentalists referred to the development of GMO food as a lost respect for nature.

"We are coming closer to human beings too, we start when we develop headless frogs, headless mice etc., then we start to arrive at cloning headless people for us to take spare parts from. And then we get, then I think we get, . . . . you become indifferent. If I had read about this three years ago, I would have thought this was so morbid. But now you think, yes, how could it work, what would happen, and what would happen with the people if you could have your clone to take an organ from when your heart started to clog, or you eat too bad, then I think we would not be careful with anthing because everything can be replaced anyhow. So we loose our feeling for everything, I think" (SE).

Also, when discussing GMO food, the Swedish vegetarians meant that we are playing with destiny and have no right to be in charge of nature. They referred to Jurassic park and to crazy scientists moving genes about. They were afraid we might not see the consequences of this development until later and gave the example of the development of the nuclear bomb which at first showed no signs of the far-reaching consequences it ended up to have. They feared that the development of GMO food could easily lead to human beings being genetically modified:

"if you start modifying food, you will probably modify people too and I think that is pretty weird. Because if it comes to the wrong person, it would be possible to create a super army" (SV)

A concern with the moral and the consequences of GMO food was expressed by the Danish environmentalists.

"It is again the artificial. That is it human beings who create humans or animals. Simply go in and interfere with this order. That is definitely the moral element!!" (DE)

"It is the fear of what might happen. That is the problem What happens in ten years, in twenty years?" (DE)

The fact that development of GMO food leads to less biological variety was discussed by the Swedish vegetarians:

"It is thoroughly sick, it will end in us having only one type of flower, one type of sheep, we will stand there and look in the history books and say here are 500 million species. They don’t exist any more. Nature is diversity and I think we should protect that instead of developing GMO food. We don’t need to interfere, species will disappear anyway, in a natural way" (SV)

Also, the Swedish environmentalists as well as the Danish environmentalists feared that this development would lead to less biological variety:

"this practice means actually to develop two or three species which will exist all over the earth so that a company can control the entire market. It means, really, that we will knock out the biological diversity. And even if there is no system ecologist who can prove in numbers that a system of diversity is safer, that is still the case". (SE)

"And the bio-diversity becomes smaller. And you get a weaker group which now maybe cannot be attacked by a disease, but if something that can attack it suddenly occurs, it is the whole species that dies" (DE).

Health versus indulgence

All the groups interviewed, except the Danish ordinary eaters, showed an orientation towards health. For example the Swedish ordinary eaters and the Swedish vegetarians referred to GMO food as being unnatural. Also, the Danish environmentalists considered genetically modified food artificial, synthetic, or unnatural:

"Well, the natural and the healthy go together, and that it tastes good. It should not be made artificially. It should be something coming from nature" (DE)

They also feared that GMO could lead to a reduction in taste experiences and that the development in the long run could cause illnesses:

"What I think might be the danger in this is that it becomes very standardized. We have this good tomato, which is the best tomato Bwho would then want the bad tomato?? So if you only have good tomatoes, you only have one type !!" (DE)

"Also the matter that you have discovered that the more synthetically the food becomes .. I mean over time you have found out that something which you thought was healthy twenty years ago actually turned out to be dangerous to the body, because it was not natural enough. And therefore is has been pathogenic, where you actually thought it would be beneficial.." (DE)

The opposition against eating GMO food varied, however. The Swedish environmentalists stated that the ecological alternative was the natural alternative in our society and they would not eat GMO food under any cirumstances. Also, the Danish vegetarians, who thought GMO food is very undesirable and unnatural, would not under any cirumstances eat GMO food:

"I relate it to something which is not natural. It is something made by the human hand it is something that would not have lived or grown, unless we had interfered and manipulated it" (DV)

"Not even if I sat in front of the queen I would not eat it, never" (DV)

The Danish environmentalists would, on the other hand, not eat GMO when with friends or family, but eat it in more formal situations:

"It depends on whether we are visiting the queen or some friends" (DE).

Also, the Swedish vegetarians would eat GMO food if they were invited to someone’s home, but then they would express their opinion of GMO food. The Swedish ordinary eaters seemed less concerned about the effects if they were served GMO food in someone’s home:

"Yes, I would have eaten it (if served at someone’s home). I don’t think it is that dangerous, then it would not be on the market at all, wouldn’t think so. Not that you get affected at the first smash, I wouldn’t think so" (SV).

This inclination to eat GMO food under certain conditions, as discussed above, could imply a slight orientation towards indulgence in that it shows less rigid norms for what is regarded as right or wrong. The Danish ordinary eaters were oriented towards indulgence in that they considered GMO food as unnatural and chemical, but as long as it was not unhealthy, they would buy it. They argued that since nothing in the food production in reality is "natural," there is no reason to have a negative attitude to GMO food. They thought that if it has been approved for sale on the market, then it was not considered unhealthy.

"As long as it [GMO food] is allowed on the market, I don’t think it is unhealthy" (DO)

Economy versus extravagance

The Danish ordinary eaters showed an orientation towards economy. Even though they looked upon food in general mainly in terms of nutrition, their primary buying criterion for food, including GMO food, was price. They associated GMO food with cheap food.

"The first you think of is probably also that it is something chemical.... but you buy it anyway. I don’t think that you consider it when you go out and buy it. You buy what is cheapest!!" (DO)

Also, some of the Swedish ordinary eaters showed an orientation towads economy. They indicated that if GMO food tasted the same as other food, the decision had to be based on income assuming that you would not get hurt or that you knew more about the consequences of eating GMO food.

The rest of the interviewed groups showed an orientation towards extravagance. For example, the Swedish environmentalists expressed that they were already used to or had developed habits to purchase ecological food which is somewhat expensive:

"We are already buying expensive ecological food, which is more expensive than conventional food, therefore I don’t think that the equation cheap food and ecology adds up. Food must become more expensive" (SE)

They would not under any circumstances eat GMO food and they expressed that only if they became apathetic and gave up their ideals, they might feel differently. This illustrates that the choice of 'foodstyle’ may be related to ideological standpoints. Also, the Danish vegetarians emphasized that they would never buy GMO food even if it was cheaper. Their opposition against GMO food was in coherence with their lifestyle:

"But, being a vegetarian is part of a lifestyle. This is also why I said that when you asked whether I specifically am against genetic engineering: Well, how can you be for genetic engineering when you have that lifestyle?" (DV)

Also, the Danish environmentalists stressed that their chosen lifestyle was not possible to combine with GMO food. They would never buy GMO food and under no circumstances if they had children. However, some of them would buy GMO food if they had income problems and if the price was sufficiently low. Also, the Swedish vegetarians would not buy GMO food unless they were in a terribly bad shape economically or had not eaten for a week.

Convenience versus care

An orientation towards convenience was expressed by the Danish ordinary eaters, who mentioned that GMO food represent improved food quality:

"Something that is improved. Stays fresh longer, the size of the fruits, taste improved........I can only see the positive things to it, that you can get something better out of it" (DO).

Even though the Danish environmentalists expressed that GMO technology could improve food quality, they emphasized that there were stronger reasons against the use of GMO in food such as it being unnatural and unhealthy. Similar arguments were mentioned by the Danish vegetarians:

"I find it directly repulsive. I mean I feel completely sick by thinking that we can manipulate some things to our advantage, so that is becomes larger or tastes better or the like" (DV)

"I find it alarming that we are into changing something which has be created naturally. That we go in and say, well now we fix it a little to make it stay fresh longer or to see what happens. I think that is alarming" (DV)

The interviews with the Swedish vegetarians indicated that convenience in terms of saving time was not considered important in their lives. They were already used to spending time looking for information about products and to read the table of contents in order to see what products consisted of.

Orientation towards care was during the interviews expressed in many different ways. For example, the Swedish vegetarians emphasized that they did not know if food wa genetically modified and as a result of this uncertainty they showed concern for the effects GMO might have on themselves. The consequences on human beings were also expressed by the Swedish ordinary eaters:

"Yes, it was a typical example of mercury, it started with the plants, but it passed to us gradually." (SO)

Care not only pertains to consumption in terms of effects on human beings, but also to production in terms of effects on animals or plants. Most of the Swedish ordinary eaters thought that it was worse to genetically modify an animal than a plant and feared a loss of control. Judging from the quote below, plants were not considered living organisms:

"It seems so unnatural, we can easily lose control, but as long as it stops at strawberries and apples and such things, then I think it is o.k., but if they start with living organisms (i.e. animals) and such things, then it is getting serious" (SO)

The Danish environmentalists were against genetic modification of animals and plants, but if they had to make a choice, they were more against genetic modification of animals. They thought that we can more easily identify with animals:

"In a way it is not, but it is probably that you know that animals can sense and feel and so. And this is what I find repulsive. That you go in and change something in a being which actually can feel and feel pain. That I think is repulsive!!" (DE)

"It is further away from us if it is a vegetable. With animals we approach the human being, and then we are more affected" (DE)

Also, some Danish ordinary eaters expressed that animals were closer to man and therefore it was more problematic than plants and should be more restricted but not forbidden. However, not all the Danish ordinary eaters were oriented towards care or showed the same concern for animals:

"You also think that animals, actually they only live by the virtue of us. You have to slaughter them to eat them anyway. I don’t think they suffer any of them [......] I suppose it all serves a purpose" (DO)

The Swedish environmentalists had a completely different opinion of what they considered being morally correct:

"And if I see that people think that it is o.k. to interfere with animals, that it is o.k. that we can tamper with their bodies and their DNA, their inner core, then it is very easy to transfer it to ourselves and if we don’t have any kind of feeling for their suffering which actually is the same suffering as ours. Then you wonder what kind of moral opinion you have against other sentient beings" (SE).

Neither the Danish vegetarians nor the Swedish vegetarians liked genetic modification of either animals or plants. The Swedish vegetarians felt, however, that it is worse with genetic modification of animals, because animals feel pain. At the same time, they feared that if we start with plants, the next step would be animals. The argument of proceeding from plants to animals was also raised by the Swedish ordinary eaters:

"Now if you start with plants, it can easier spead to animals" (S)

The Swedish environmentalists, who did not like either genetic modification of animals or plants, mentioned that genetic modificatio of plants spread easier than animals, because plants have shorter generations and "breeding" of plants is more difficult to control than animals. They also mentioned that there is a risk for us in that new viruses can be created if animals are genetically modified, since they are more closely related to human beings genetically.

Centralization versus decentralization of power

During the interviews, another theme emerged dealing with centralization versus decentralization of power. Some groups feared that the development of GMO could lead to centralization of power in that a few actors controlled the market. For example, the Swedish ordinary eaters expressed a fear of the consequences in that researchers have power and could do just about anything:

"Once you have so to speak started to tamper with a gene, then it is a whole new world opening. And you can do so much more than just enlarge, you can change practically any way you want, as I understand things. And then the human being is sitting there playing with the most sacred of things. With genes which decides how things should be and stuff like that. Some researchers are sitting there, sitting there playing with it, and can do just about anything." (SO)

"We have never tested it and I think it is lethal in the long-run. We can just look at the effects when we have tried to play gods. Industrialism and everything." (SO)

The Swedish environmentalists described thoses working on developing this new technology as persons having skills to write patent applications, but lacking sufficient knowledge about the consequences. They emphasized that those who benefited from this new technique were large companies such as seeds companies, chemical companies, and major farmers.

"large greedy corporations, starting to tamper with life itself only in order to make even more money and that I think is pretty dangerous, because you don’t know anything about the risks if these organisms slip out into the environment". (SE)

The Swedish environmentalists wanted agricultural production to be small scale and local and emphasized a life in symbiosis with animals instead of seeing them as products.

The incitement of money was also discussed by the Danish environmentalists:

"I connect genetically modified food with something that is not created by nature. It is something that human beings have changed in order to make money" (DE)

Also, the Swedish vegetarians felt that this development was all about money. They argued that the fact that only the large companies could afford it, led to a monopoly situation. They also expressed a concern that GMO food is often developed by companies which both grow tomatoes and produce pharmacy products:

"Then the big wigs are thinking 'money, money, money’ and the researchers are thinking 'research, research, research’, here you get lots of money so you can do some research and then it all goes to hell" (SV).


On the basis of our study, it seems that the concept of risk society proposed by Beck (1992) is one of the more empirically challenging characterizations of the type of sociey dominating towards the end of the 20th century. In contrast to other prolific characterizations, such as postmodernity (mainly from Lyotard 1979 and onwards) or reflexivity (Giddens, 1991), the concept of risk as a key descriptive term makes immediate sense to people in their daily lives. Many informants expressed a certain confusion, caught as they are between the experts from the industry and from some parts of the scientific environment and experts from critical groups and other parts of the scientific community. A key question in the debate has been the risks and consequences of a potential spreading of genetic modifications to other species in nature. Or the consequences of genetic modification on other species, like the problem with the threat to the reproduction of the Monarch butterfly, presumably caused by genetically modified corn.

Confronted with the public debate, the question for many people is: who speaks with most legitimacy, and hence, inspires the most confidence? In our interviews, it seems like there are mainly two forms of reaction to the GMO technology: Either people have a basic confidence in the food industryBneither could nor would they produce and market potentially harmful products. This was expressed by some informants minimizing the risks of GMO in that they referred to them as being scientifically tested and safe. The alternative attitude is based on prudence: As long as we do not know the consequences, we better refrain from adopting the technology. Risks mentioned here were both in terms of immediate personal health and general uncertainty about long term effects. However, the risks involved need not be related to only health. Several informants especially from the environmentalist samples expressed fears of the market consequences of the introduction of GMO. They referred to the monopolized dominance of a limited number of economically resourceful research organizations and companies who were expected to gain control over the market. This, in turn, would lead to unwanted economic consequences in terms of unfair competition, and potentially distrastrous decreases in biodiversity.

Beardsworth and Keil (1997) draw attention to the paradox, that food scares are flourishing in a time, where science has effectively reassured the reliability and the safety of food supply. They argue that more meticulous labeling, more serious public debate and guarantees and better information about the products in general is the most likely instrument for restoring food control. Indeed, they go as far as to refer to McDonaldization as a reassuring mechanism of the food quality, exemplified by the uniform standards in global fast food chains.

It is possible that the cultural differences in orientation to GMO food between ordinary eaters in Sweden and Denmark are a reflection of the fact that the debate on GMO food has been going on for a longer time in Denmark than in Sweden. According to this logic, more people would have had time to reflect on the topic, free themselves from the media-induced scare-campaigns and grow beyond the immediate anxieties or neophobia (Fischler 1990). Contrasting evidence to this is that even though the ordinary eaters in Sweden and Denmark had different attitudes to GMO food, both groups were neither very involved in nor very knowledgeable about GMO food.

On the other hand, it is exactly Beck’s (1992) point that the scientific control of hazards is followed by new threats, arising from exactly those same scientific methods. This argument is supported by the fact that both the Swedish and the Danish environmentalists as well as the vegetarians were highly involved and very much aware of issues related to GMO. In particular, the environmentalists in both countries seemed to be the groups showing the highest awareness, and reference to exact scientific problematic aspects of GMO foods.

Who is right and who is wrong? Since science is the systematic search for negation of itself, we can hardly expect any security from that part B again the exact condition of science in risk society that it is simultaneously the producer of risks and the onlyremedy against risks.

The only safe thing to conclude is probably, that there is a growing public attention to the food production methods in the two countries, evidenced by a constant media coverage of various scientific results from the whole world about potential consequences of various highly efficient production methods. Consumers are caught in the middle of this tyranny of communication (Ramonet, 1999). As we are writing this, the radio news report draws our attention to some results from a British research project, indicating the risks of the heavy use of antibiotics in pork production. Preventing epidemic outbreaks of diseases in the stables by injections of antibiotics may give rise to new resistant bacteria, e.g. the ones causing typhoid fever, that in turn poses a threat to human beings. Thus, the McDonaldization of food production systems, based on efficiency, calculability, predictability and control, has, like the McDonaldization process in general, shown signs of containing its own negation (Ritzer, 1993).

Ferry (1995) writes about fear as a political passion. It remains to be seen how seriously companies, consumer advocates, and social policy makers consider the fear consumers expressed in the two countries studied. Much more research is needed, not only in the production sector, but also as far as consumption is concerned, in order to understand the long term behavioral consequences of the risk society for the way people choose their food. On a concluding note, let us keep in mind that all research in the world cannot "settle the problem". It remains a political issue of choice: how we want to organize our production and consumption systems.


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Beardsworth, A. & T. Keil (1997), Sociology on the Menu, London: Routledge.

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Beck, U. (1992), Risk Society. Towards A New Modernity, Sage: London.

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Ramonet, I. (1999), La tyrannie de la communication, Paris: Editions GalilTe.

Ritzer, G. (1993), The McDonaldization of Society, Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Thompson, C., H. R. Pollio & W.B. Locander (1994), "The Spoken and the Unspoken: A Hermaneutic Approach to Understanding the Cultural Viewpoints that Underlie Consumers’ Expressed Meanings," Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 21 (December), 432-453.

Warde, A. (1997), Consumption, Food, and Taste, London: Sage.



Karin M. Ekstrom, Goteborg University
Soren Askegaard, SDU Odense University & Lund University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 | 2000

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