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Facts elusive for some U.S. consumers when it comes to rice

Some consumers don’t know what rice looks like when it’s growing in the field. Some don’t know that rice is grown in the United States. And some associate rice – and all commercially-grown U.S. crops – with GMOs.

As hard as this information might be for U.S. rice farmers to swallow – especially the part about GMOs since no commercially-grown U.S. rice is GMO – those are attitudes that turned up frequently in a series of focus groups conducted by the USA Rice Federation last summer.

“It’s important to remember when you’re looking at this that we’re there to get opinions; we’re not there to get facts, particularly if their opinions all have a very fleeting relationship to the truth,” said Michael Klein, vice president, marketing and communications for the USA Rice Federation.

Klein was setting the stage for a presentation on the findings of the focus groups conducted in five U.S. cities for the Federation. Klein delivered the focus group opinions at the USA Rice Outlook Conference in Little Rock Dec. 9.

The cities – Little Rock, Sacramento, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Chicago and Philadelphia – were selected to represent different segments of the U.S. population: a rural and agricultural area such as Little Rock; an urban and rice-growing area such as Sacramento; an environmentally-conscious area, Portland; and two highly urbanized areas, Chicago and Philadelphia.

The Federation “teased” the audience with a couple of sound bites from the groups earlier in the Outlook Conference. A video clip in which focus group members tried to imagine what rice looks like – “does it grow on a vine?” drew a lot of head-shaking in one audience.

Family farmers

Klein said the groups, which consisted of 10 to 12 persons drawn at random from each area, expressed near-universal admiration for farmers.

“’Farmers are hard-working, farmers are necessary, they feed us, they appreciate everything that farmers do’ were some of the comments we received in Little Rock and in Chicago,” said Klein. “But there’s a catch. Their respect is reserved for family farms, not for corporate farms.

“We’re glad they like family farms because we think, well, that’s us, we’re family farms,” he said. “But that’s not what they think. They think family farms are being pushed out by corporate farms. Corporate farms are taking over, and family farms are few and far between.”

What did members of the focus groups know about rice farming? Almost nothing, says Klein.

“In each of the focus groups except one, they assumed that all of their rice came from China,” he noted. “India and Thailand were also mentioned, but, for the most part, it’s China. The exception to that was Sacramento where rice farming is very heavy in the Sacramento River Delta.”

The group in Sacramento was more knowledgable about farming, particularly because of the water issue in California. “Everyone knows that water is used for rice,” he noted. “There was a sense that there might be too much water used for rice. But they were knowledgable which may be an indication the CRC (California Rice Commission) is doing some good in the state.

Come and get it

“We got the sense walking around the city that ‘we’ll let the farmers have all the water they need. If there’s any left, we’ll drink it, and if there’s any left after that, the guys from LA can come up and get it.”

In Portland, only a few hundred miles away, the sentiment was totally different. “Suspicion; it’s a totally evil plot, that sort of thing,” said Klein. “You know we use the word flooding, and people associate flooding with Noah and a lot of water. That might be something we want to think about.”

Some focus group members believe that hot, humid weather is needed to grow rice, “and they didn’t think we had any weather like that in the United States,” said Klein. “So that’s one of the reasons they think most rice comes from China – that type of weather is prevalent there.”

One Portland participant, a chef, said he would never serve rice grown in the United States,” said Klein. “The only rice he would serve customers was rice that he knew was grown in a small village in southeast China. He was very opinionated, very misinformed and very, very passionate about his misinformation.”

When the focus group leaders talked about gains U.S. rice farmers have made in significantly reducing their crop’s environmental footprint, the reaction was positive initially. Then the questions took a different turn.

“Is it hybrid rice from genetic engineering?” a focus group member from Chicago asked. “This isn’t logical unless they’re using some sort of GMO,” said a group member from Portland. “I think it’s attributed to GMO. Monsanto,” said a Little Rock participant.

Two defenders

“There were only two people in all of the groups who came to the defense of GMOs and said they weren’t necessarily bad,” said Klein. “They weren’t really excited about it (GMOs). They seemed to be resigned to it.”

On the other hand, when the group members were informed that U.S. rice contains no GMOs, the atmosphere changed with some members applauding and a female member of one group pumping her arm in a “yes” gesture to express their approval.

Klein said the Federation took away several messages from the focus groups. One is that it needs to emphasize that rice farmers are family farmers and that few corporations run rice farms in the United States.

“We need to talk about our family farms and that our crops are locally grown, which might differentiate us from some other crops,” he said. “Some people may use the term family-owned businesses, but I would say family farms.”

Another is the GMO issue. For now, the rice industry should take advantage of the no-GMO rice message. It also should begin now to figure out how to address the GMO or Frankenfood problem before genetically-engineered rice becomes available.

Another is conservation. “Even the guy who wouldn’t support U.S. rice could see the connection between rice farming and conservation,” Klein noted.

Group members also liked the Grown in the USA Rice label and said they preferred to buy products grown and made in this country. “One participant said she wouldn’t buy rice from another country because she didn’t like the chemicals they put on it and the fact they had their children out picking their rice.” 

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